In October 1998, a twenty-one-year-old student at the University of Wyoming was kidnapped, severely beaten, and left tied to a fence in the middle of the prairie outside Laramie, Wyoming. His bloody, bruised, and battered body was not discovered until the next day, and he died several days later in an area hospital. Matthew Shepard’s brutal murder was viewed as a hate crime, assaulted strictly because he was gay. Playwright Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project made six trips to Laramie over the course of a year and a half, conducting more than 200 interviews with the people of the town, including law enforcement officers, Laramie citizens, and even the two young men who perpetrated the deed and eventually convicted of murder. Lit Live Theater Company’s performance of The Laramie Project, currently playing through Sunday, July 29 at the Elite Theatre Company in Oxnard, is a disquieting and effective production featuring a rotating cast of 17 (the original play calls for a cast of eight) who speak the words of the more than 50 subjects Kaufman and his crew interviewed.
The Laramie Project is more of a documentary than a courtroom drama. The idea was to characterize the town in its reaction to the crime and its aftermath, rather than to document the crime itself and the ensuing trial. Characters are fleetingly introduced by narrator Lindsay Roth, ranging from family members of the accused to witnesses, religious leaders, and those who knew both Shepard and his attackers. The residents of Laramie are depicted as real people, many of whom resent the fact that because of the murder, Laramie has now, like Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Aurora, been equated with a notorious crime.
The interrogations of the two assailants, Aaron McKinney (Spencer Sharp) and Russell Henderson (Gregor Balkian), are especially chilling. Neither shows remorse for their actions, with Sharp’s dead-eyed responses to questions being particularly unnerving. J. Paul Zimmerman excels as the Reverend Fred Phelps, one of six characters he portrays, a homophobic Baptist minister who praises a God that hates gays and who condemns Shepard to an eternity in hell. Little of the dialog can be considered memorable. There are very few quotes that can be emblazoned on a plaque as a warning or precursor to future acts of this diabolical nature. The weightiness of the play is that these are words of real people reacting to a real tragedy. One shocked resident said of McKinney and Henderson: “We don’t grow children like that here” and then came to the realization that yes, they do. Many express reluctant tolerance of Shepard’s gay lifestyle, swallowing a “live and let live” attitude like it’s a spoonful of castor oil. Others are less subtle, expressing their blind hatred for Shepard’s “alternate lifestyle.” The most emotionally wrought sequence comes when the victim’s father, Dennis Shepard (in a powerful performance by Paul Carpenter), addresses McKinney directly in the courtroom, delivering a seething display of unforgiving hatred, with McKinney sitting impassively still.
The cumulative effect of The Laramie Project is one of revulsion, anger, and ultimately, sadness. Lit Live’s mission – to stage live performances of classic literature – has delivered another thought-provoking, highly recommended production that packs a wallop as well as a message of tolerance and rejection of senseless hate.
The Laramie Project features Evie Abat, Christine Busch Adams, Gregor Balkian, Paul Carpenter, Kimerly Fadul, Corydon Melgoza, Peter Mazzeo, Steven Michael, Victoria McGee, Red Patterson, Skip Pipo, Lindsay Roth, Spencer Sharp, Hayley Silvers, Avital Stone, Arianna Velasquez, and J. Paul Zimmerman.
The Laramie Project concludes its run July 29 at the Elite Theatre Company in Oxnard. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.