“The Laramie Project” Presents Matthew Shepard’s Story on Stage
With bullying against young members of the queer community finally garnering national attention, the Second Stage production of Moises Kaufman’s “The Laramie Project” this weekend was all too appropriate: the show tells the true story of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who was brutally murdered in October of 1998.
The play is composed entirely of real-life interviews of Wyoming residents following the murder. Members of the Tectonic Theater Project conducted all of the interviews and organized public records to put together the show, which includes a cast of 60 characters portrayed by nine actors (in this particular rendition).
Kara Wernick ’15 directed the play and immediately set the show’s somber tone by contrasting the WestCo Café’s rather colorful wall space with a raised black stage and black flats behind the actors, who were already sitting in a row of chairs when the house opened.
With each actor playing at least three separate roles, the cast did an impressive job transitioning from character to character. It was extremely important for the actors to find defining physicalities for each of their characters so as not to confuse the audience, and some were more effective than others in this task.
Sara Guernsey ’15 set the straightforward tone of the show as the narrator, who was informative but did not distract from the true action of the play. Gabe Gordon ’15 was also extremely impressive as Rulon Stacey, the CEO of the hospital in which Matthew Shepard spent his final moments. Gordon delivered a beautiful monologue in which he, as Stacey, delivers notice of Shepard’s death to the media and lapses into tears midway through his press conference.
Another particularly emotional moment came when Jiovani Robles ’13, portraying defendant Russell Henderson, delivered an apology to Shepard’s parents after being found guilty of second-degree murder and kidnapping. Just like in the real-life trial, it was impossible to tell if Henderson was being sincere in his apology, or if he was hoping to win favor with the judge.
Alison Goldberg ’15 and Beanie Feldstein ’15 turned in great performances as well. Both young actresses brought incredible honesty to all of their roles, most notably Goldberg as Shepard’s theater professor and Feldstein as the police officer who attempted to resuscitate Shepard and exposed an open wound to the HIV-positive victim.
Sarah Corey ’15 and Emma Lautz ’15 both provided some comic relief as the elderly town gossips, who continually swear “not to say any more about that” before spilling the deepest of their secrets.
Freshman Hannah Rimm’s best moment came as the fiery, infamous Reverend Fred Phelps, leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, who protested Shepard’s funeral with anti-gay signs and chants. Additionally, freshman Alex Heyison’s portrayal of quirky Laramie resident Doc O’Connor was notable because the actor found O’Connor’s humanity amidst the strange ramblings of the old man.
The biggest complaint about the show could be that, instead of working towards a performance for performance’s sake, the show worked towards performance for the sake of a message. Characters were often caricatures of themselves rather than actual people. Even someone whose interview appears just once should have all of their own mannerisms and accents, just as the characters who appear more often do.
Some issues with “Laramie” stem from the script more than anything else. Sometimes, the production seemed a bit static. When directing a show comprised primarily of monologues, it is crucial to keep the action dynamic on the stage.
Thus, each of this show’s most beautiful moments came when the actors got up out of their chairs and had something to do beyond speaking to the audience. The first of these moments came at the end of the first act, when each character huddles forward at the front of the stage with a candle, representing the vigils across America being held for Matthew.
The next was an extremely pleasant surprise; Wernick wonderfully choreographed one of Lautz’s monologues by turning an inconspicuous sheet into stunning, huge angels’ wings on Feldstein, who represented a protestor against Phelps’ church.
Delightful moments like these left me wanting more action, because while the play calls for a somber tone, there is just not enough to demand two hours’ worth of attention when the set is comprised solely of a black stage and the actors sit in chairs for most of the show.
“Laramie,” though, was faithful until the end—it set out with the mission to profoundly impact its audience, and it did so through two acts of this refreshingly honest and touching performance.