In 2000, two years after Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten and left tied to a fence to die in Laramie, Wyoming, The Laramie Project premiered in Denver. A documentary-style play, it was written by a dozen members of the Tectonic Theater Project, led by Moisés Kaufman, who made numerous visits to Laramie to conduct interviews.
In its 50th anniversary season, and 25 years after Shepard’s death, Group Rep presents a remarkable production of this moving work. A talented cast of 11, directed by Kathleen Delaney, brings to life more than five dozen Laramie residents and Laramie Project playwrights in a constantly shifting tableau.
At first, the play builds in a way that mirrors the trickling in of details to Laramie residents who knew Shepard. Hints are dropped about attitudes toward gays. The picture gets sharper, then viscerally shocking. The Laramie Project grips audience members familiar with Shepard’s story just as strongly as it does those for whom the story is new. The layers of detail and the voices of those affected pile up. The nightmare is in those details.
The play’s heroes and villains speak with growing candor, as they become used to the presence of media. The wide open spaces of Wyoming are repeatedly described as “live and let live,” despite increasing evidence to the contrary. One telling detail: students and other Laramie residents had to cross the Colorado border to find a gay bar.
It’s impossible to cite all the powerful voices and actors in a show written as an ensemble piece. Standout heroes include University of Wyoming theater student Jedadiah Schultz and bartender Matt Galloway (both played by Landon Beatty). Shepard’s friend Romaine Patterson (Kay Vermeil) expresses the personal and community pain; minister Stephen Mead Johnson (Jackie Shearn) shows compassion. UW theater department head Rebecca Hilliker (Roslyn Cohn) introduces the visiting theater folk to the townspeople who become their play’s characters.
Villains include Rev. Fred Phelps of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church (Paul Cady) and Gov. Jim Geringer (Beatty), who warns against using Shepard’s death to give gay people “special rights.” And of course there are the ultimate villains, murderers, Aaron McKinney (Shearn) and Russell Henderson (Beatty).
In between are those expressing casual yet hateful discrimination, like Murdock Cooper (Stephen Rockwell), a rancher who called Shepard’s murder 50 percent the victim’s fault because he was gay and trying to “pick up regular people.”
The show’s excellent sound design, by Marc Antonio Pritchett, adds immensely to The Laramie Project’s sense of place and time. The sparse set by Mareli Mitchel-Shields and lighting/projections by Tor Brown effectively let the enormous collection of witnesses to history speak their minds.
Ultimately, The Laramie Project stands as a monument to gay rights and human dignity and an indictment of hatred and intolerance disguised as conventional society. Group Rep expertly crafts a complex and moving tapestry.
The Laramie Project from the Group Rep runs through May 21 at the Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd. in North Hollywood. Show times are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm, Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets are $35 and are available here.