A production at the Backlot touches both the heart and the mind.
By Kay Kipling
The death of gay college student Matthew Shepard in 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming, triggered a nationwide examination of hate crimes and their genesis. It also led to The Laramie Project, a Tectonic Theater Project headed by Moises Kaufman in which actors became interviewers, talking to some 200 people in and around Laramie about their town and the murder and then staging the results of their work. To my knowledge, the current production of The Laramie Project at the Backlot is the first that’s been presented locally, and it’s to be hoped that audiences for the show’s run (weekends through July 15 only) become larger than the small (but appreciative) group I sat with the night I attended.
That’s not just because we should all “be good” and swallow a sometimes bitter pill of contemporary, truth-based theater. It’s because The Laramie Project, performed by 10 actors portraying more than 60 real-life people, is absorbing, involving and moving.
The production, as intended by its makers and as directed by young Ringling College grad Whitney Morton, is very simple. The set consists most importantly of a fence railing like the one Shepard was tied to—and left to die at—by his attackers, two young Laramie men who claimed he had tried to solicit them for sex. Other than that, the town of Laramie is suggested by different groupings of chairs to represent a bar, a church, a courtroom. And the townsfolk, ranging from clergy to university professors to bartenders to policemen, are rendered identifiable by a change in a scarf or shirt or the addition of a hat. For the most part, the cast makes those transitions between characters subtly and effectively.
Some of the most affecting scenes involve a hospital spokeswoman (Sage Hall), overcome by her emotions on camera; a Roman Catholic priest (Ryan Dowd Urch), who dares to hold a vigil for the victim without asking permission from his bishop; a female cop (Margret Taylor) who tries to save Matthew’s life and then fears she may pay with her own; a confession by the more shameless of the two killers (Urch again); and a speech by Matthew’s father(Jack Eddleman) that reveals the depth of his loss but also ends up asking for mercy for the perpetrators of the horrible crime.
For the most part, The Laramie Project is quiet, relatively subdued, and it does not push into our faces the shock and sorrow we will inevitably feel anyway. In the end, of course, the play is not just about Laramie but about all of us, and it leaves us with questions—some unanswered—about what we can and should do in the face of hate.
For tickets to The Laramie Project, call 363-9300 or go to backlotarts.com.