Plenty of people will be resistant to the idea of attending an evening of theater based on the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming. Some may not want to visit what sounds like a pretty dark place. Others may feel that their political sensibilities are already in the right place -- they're not homophobic, so they don't need a play that preaches to the converted, so to speak.
Those people are in for a few surprises. One of the many things the Moisés Kaufman/Tectonic Theater Project drama The Laramie Project manages to do well is surprise the audience. Surprise: Although Shepard -- a gay college student who was beaten, robbed and left tied to a fence by two attackers -- was cast as a martyr after his death, in life he was no saint. Surprise: Shepard's best friend, a 21-year-old lesbian, comes up with a magical way to silence hate-mongering protesters at the trial of the killers. Surprise: Those killers, we learn, were human, too.
The drama is made powerful by two key methods: The play is a collection of comments made by Laramie residents after the attack, recorded in interviews by the players of New York-based Tectonic. This stuff is in no way fictive. Also, the interviewers of Tectonic are characters in the play itself -- they share their doubts and concerns at every step of the project, and those doubts are not hidden from the audience. The breaking of the fourth wall adds intimacy to the experience.
In Laramie, ten actors play 72 roles. They become bigoted ranchers, closeted lesbians, frightened priests, an open-minded student with homophobic parents, the bartender who last served Shepard, friends of the killers, the cyclist who discovered Shepard, bloody and unconscious (in a chilling scene), and many more. Although we know the sad outcome of the story, we become caught up in the tale of Shepard's abduction, his fight for life in the hospital, and the expanding media frenzy.
Audience members will feel various emotions on their way through a memorable evening at the Edison Theatre. There is plenty of anger and sadness -- and more, there is the surprising feeling you get when some of the interviewees change and grow and you see that even serious assholes are capable of enlightenment.
"Laramie became a microcosm of the nation, in a way," says Laramie director and (Mostly) Harmless Theatre artistic director Robert Neblett. "It [the play] ultimately becomes a play about how we act in moments of great adversity and how we form communities. I'm hoping that the audience will take away questions that they'll have to answer themselves, and we'll take a really hard look at ourselves and reconsider what is the breeding ground of hate."
In a telling exchange from the play, the president of the University of Wyoming encourages a crowd to "show the world that Laramie is not this kind of a town." An astute student disagrees, pointing out, "It happened here ... we are like this."