Theatre review: The Laramie Project

by **

Dear Dad

When we encounter the town of Laramie in Wyoming, America, Matthew Shepard has already died. It is November 1998. And the young 21-year-old homosexual was kidnapped, tied to a fence, savagely beaten, and left to languish by two local boys four weeks ago.

One would expect the close-knit community in this sparsely populated, windswept city to be overcast with gloom. But the residents we meet all appear to be upbeat and comfortable, extolling the virtues of the area they say is safe, friendly, and liberating.

Yet, as you sit through the revival of Moises Kaufman’s powerful play by Chris Baldock (whose previous production eight years ago won him the Green Room Award), you realise the incident has not only set off an undercurrent of polarisation and cynicism, but also one of determination and resolve.

This is a cracker of a play: riveting, passionate, and provocative, and delivered here with verve and honesty, by a VERY fine ensemble.

Assembling material from 200 interviews conducted over two years, Kaufman and his theatre company, Tectonic Theatre Project, deftly created an arresting montage of brief vignetted accounts, together which convey a potent message with resonance up to this present day.

The laid-back, breeziness of this small (Christian and Catholic) city belie simmering and deeply entrenched prejudices. Whilst minority religions are sardonically tolerated, discrimination against homosexuality is blatant and rife.

Shepard is remembered by Laramie (where everyone is said to know everyone) as a petite, well-mannered, well-heeled, university student with a keen interest in politics. And — as ironic as it may seem — in human rights .

With a cast of eight playing a staggering number of different roles, the play traces the town’s disbelief, denial, and division following the brutal assault.

Shocked that the perpetrators should be two of their own, the town struggles with how this event might have changed the way the outside world perceives them, but more crucially, the way they perceive themselves. Emphatically, they tell others — and each other — the vicious act is not a representation of who they are nor what they believe in. It is an exception in an otherwise easy-going neighbourhood. An aberration.

Just as the inhabitants are diametrically divided about where culpability lies (thereby reflecting on their individual stance towards homosexuality), the church is depicted as far from united on this controversial issue as well — not only between the various denominations, but even within each communion — a move that still chimes with the current religious dissonance.

Because Kaufman’s narrative comprises transcripts from real conversations with Laramie’s real townfolk, his three-act play offers each side of the discourse its own platform.

And, although the accusation lays squarely on Shepard’s attackers — at least where the judiciary is concerned — the play elegantly sketches in a wider responsibility: the President of the University of Wyoming feels incriminated for having turned a blind eye to quiet persecutions; and the society in general feels indicted for having bred a culture of hate and segregation.

Baldock’s staging, with his minimalist set and emotive music (not to mention his exquisite choreography), combines with Douglas Montgomery’s effectual lighting to create a theatrical experience that is steeped in tension, focus and pathos, while not enough can be said about the talent of the cast: the actorly genius of all eight of them is altogether beyond reproach.

This is a fine and extraordinary work that not only portrays the ugliness behind prejudice in action, but touches on a broader question of how change is achieved in society across the world. It calls on us not just to gasp at abhorrent attitudes half way round the globe, but to examine our own.

Ultimately, however, The Laramie Project brings with it a message of mercy, and of hope: the hope that Shepard’s death shall not be in vain, that he would have fulfilled his ambition in politics and in human rights, and that the world shall be a better place.

And, to whatever degree, one likes to think Shepard has somehow contributed towards the repeal of the Sodomy Act in America in 2003.

A masterful production of a masterpiece that is not to be missed!