In 1998, Matthew Shepard was beaten and hung from a fence in rural Wyoming, just outside Laramie. With nothing but the sky, sun, stars, moon, and mountains looking on, he wasted into a coma from which he would never awake.
We know Matt’s story, and we know the premise of The Laramie Project—HBO even put it on TV—so the question is, as we approach the 15th anniversary of his death, “Does it still matter?”
Yes. It does.
For nearly 2 years, the Tectonic Theatre Project visited Wyoming multiple times and compiled hundreds of interviews—and their own journal entries—into a ream they pared into a tightly woven 2-hour narrative. It tells the story not just of Matt, but of an America both united and divided. As a result, each cast member slips into multiple roles, playing real individuals who lived in Laramie during 1998. Though the townsfolk aren’t speaking from the grave, The Laramie Project feels like a modern Spoon River Anthology. Colorful voices. Rich ideas. Heartbreaking realizations. Intricate relationships.
The actors are wonderful. Simply wonderful. They don’t mimic, or even mock, small-town folk (which would have been easy). Often starting with the cadenced speech of rural, sometimes uneducated, America, each gives nuanced sundry performances that capture and sustain sadness, shock, confusion, and anger as well as hope and even momentary comic relief.. They flow from character to character without ebb and wear each town-person’s philosophies as if they’ve drifted into candid conversation with a childhood friend.
And, for Tuesday night’s press performance, they did this in a new space in which they’d never rehearsed, minus their set. Impressive.
Matthew Gardiner has directed a powerful ensemble that masterfully uses men and women to embody the mixed emotions of a nation torn over homosexuality, right vs. wrong, HIV/AIDS, discrimination, the death penalty, values, morality, violence, and a higher power. Laramie’s understated yet palpable year long evolution (from the discovery of Matt through the conviction of his assailants), spirits the audience into introspection.
Did the media over politicize and sensationalize Matt’s story and life? Did society judge and punish Laramie and, by extension, small town America unfairly? Did people make a saint of a sinner or vice versa too quickly? Why did government not help prevent hate from infecting its citizens before it came to this?
The Laramie Project
Oct 4 & 8: Ford’s Theatre at
First Congregational United Church of Christ
945 G Street, NW
Washington, DC 20001
Once performances resume:
511 Tenth Street, N.W.
2 hours, 30 minutes with 2 intermissions
Details and Tickets
Fifteen years have passed and the chord struck during Matt’s fight for life reverberates still. America’s consciousness has deepened: our belief in civil rights has turned to resolve that has, in small steps, become action. Much remains to be done, but Matt’s death catalyzed us further down the right road. Toward equality and mutual understanding. And The Laramie Project helps keep us marching. The Ford Theatre’s production is a gem that does so with profound feeling and class.
But whether or not it will be seen on the Ford’s Theatre stage is uncertain. The venerable theatre has been ordered closed because of the federal shutdown. Shame on the US Government. Shame on it for shuttering Ford’s Theatre. The act may have robbed DC of one of the most moving—solemn yet hopeful—performances it will see this year.
– Note: Ford’s Theatre has announced that until the venue has permission to reopen, all performances at their theatre are canceled. They have announced 2 free performances: Friday and Tuesday, Oct 4 and Oct 8 at 7:30pm at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 945 G Street, NW, Washington, DC 20001, a block away from Ford’s Theatre. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m. Free tickets will be distributed on site on a first-come basis. –
The Laramie Project . Written by Moises Kaufman and the Members of Tectonic Theater Project . Directed by Matthew Gardiner . Featuring Kimberly Gilbert, Mitchell Hebert, Amy McWilliams, Eric M. Messner, Paul Scanlan, Kimberly Schraf, Chris Stezin, Katherine Renee Turner, Holly Twyford, and Craig Wallace . Scenic Design: Beowulf Boritt . Costume Design: Helen Huang . Lighting Design: Rui Rita . Original Music and Sound Design: John Gromada . Projection Design: Clint Allen . Dialects: Lynn Watson . Production Stage Manager: Brandon Prendergast . Assistant Stage Manager: Kate Kilbane . Produced by Ford’s Theatre . Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.
Interview with Laramie Project director, Matthew Gardiner