CCC Exclusive Review: ‘Laramie Project’ is Must-See Documentary Theatre

Darryl Harmon in The Laramie Project

BY LOU BUTTINO
DRAMA CRITIC

The must-see historical documentary/dramatic play, The Laramie Project, began streaming Tueday. Presented by Proud Mary Theatre Company, South Carolina’s only LGBTQ+ Theatre, it is an engrossing example of the “found poetry,” or “found text” form of writing that uses pre-existing material—anything from recipes and street signs to instruction manuals and interviews. In this case over 200 interviews, plus journal notes and newspaper articles were used to write this three act “documentary theatre”.

This play, written by Moises Kaufman and members of The Tectonic Theater Project, recounts the horrible, October 1998, beating, torture and killing of an openly gay University of Wyoming student, Matthew Shepard, circumstances surrounding the attack, local inhabitant’s reactions and fallout from it.

Some facts of the case include Shepard being approached in or outside a local watering hole by Bill McKinney and Russell Henderson. The two of them then drove Shepard out on the prairie where they beat and pistol whipped him, tied him to a fence and left him for dead in the freezing cold Wyoming night. Shepard was found, still alive, the next day and rushed to the hospital. Because of his critical condition, he was subsequently transferred to a larger facility where he ultimately died from his injuries six days after the brutal attack. Both McKinney and Henderson were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. You can glean the rest of the facts from watching this gripping production.

The play covers quite a bit of ground due to the sheer number of interviewees, their varied backgrounds and opinions and the length of time taken (six visits to Laramie) to gather the information collected. Some of the Laramie inhabitants admit to some bias and even hatred for those leading alternative lifestyles.

At one point, Marge (played by Audrey Zongrone Waldrop), referring to some locals’ attitudes, states, “They might poke one or…. might even smack one in the mouth”. The “one” being a gay individual. Some of the locals attitudes are a little subtler, echoing the old “don’t ask don’t tell” approach with comments like “I don’t give a damn one way or the other, as long as they don’t bother me”, or the even the more complex, “live and let live” approach espoused by one of the characters. The interviews covering the community’s attitudes reveal some pockets of acceptance and integration of the LGBQT community into local community life. But much of it reflects “tolerance” more than “acceptance” and there is a big difference.

Much is going on here. The play brings up, although is not able to explore all, topics of educated vs non-educated, townies vs unis, locals vs immigrants and professionals vs minimum wage earners. As the interviews continue we see an extensive list of human reactions that run the gamut; guilt, rationalization, sadness, remorse, denial, recrimination, accusations, recognition, blaming of the victim, regret over doing/not doing something and just plain stupidity. Some people were outraged by the act of the attack on Shepard but did not address the underlying hate. One question raised was whether Wyoming had the same incidence of bigots per capita as any big city or was there a higher concentration in “cowboy country”. The fact is that it doesn’t make any difference. The acceptable incidence of bigotry and hate should be zero.

In the aftermath of the incident there continued to be a spectrum of reactions. Some locals hoped that it would all go away and let Laramie return to its quiet pace. Others not only hoped for a change in attitude and acceptance but actually marched and marshalled support to insist on it. A case in point is when a group of University students organized a “tag along” at the end of the Homecoming Parade in support of gay rights and they were eventually joined by a significant number of local “mothers and babies” sharing their outrage and support. Interestingly, there was also a spectrum of reaction from the local religious congregations with some expressing their own outrage over the attack and support for acceptance and equality for the LGBQT lifestyle while those at the other end continued to harangue against it. Most, apparently, remained completely silent on the issue. In many cases there was a belief that bad things incite goodness and a unity of cause to correct them.

At first not much happened in response to this horrendous hate crime. There was even some lingering disagreement as to whether this incident truly qualified as one. One of the characters, Jonas Slonaker (played by Dave LaPage), laments that a year after the trial nothing had happened at the local, state, or federal level to help prevent similar atrocities in the future. Eventually, Matthew Shepard’s life and death would result in a lasting legacy. On October 28, 2009 after much trial and error, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. (who was lynched in Jasper, Texas the same year,) Hate Crimes Prevention Law was signed into law by President Barack Obama.

There is more to the story and this exceptionally fine production, but I am running long, and I truly believe that you will get the most out of watching this absorbing production for yourself. It is not action oriented with very few scenes containing more than 1 individual. However, it will captivate you because it is character driven, and information and reflection/analysis driven.

Generally, I like to point out truly memorable performances by actors in the shows I review and, I started taking notes on individual highlights as I watched. I soon realized that I was taking copious notes on essentially all of the actors, so I stopped. The entire cast: Ryan Barry, Michele Colletti, Ava Davis, Jonathan Davis, Kelly Davis, Doug Egge, Samantha Eyler, Darryl Harriman, Jim Huber, Dave LaPage, Rebecca Schledowitz, Tyler Smith, Audrey Waldrop, and Chase Wolfe is incredible and noteworthy.

These 14 talented individuals portray more than 60 real life people who tell the story of The Laramie project. Each and every one of the actors plays each and every one of the characters with excellent and appropriate energy, sincerity, and emotion. They inject just the right amount of depth, superficiality, sobriety, sadness, and even happiness where befitting their character(s).

Director Ben Dawkins has done a wonderful job giving his cast the right amount of guidance with enough of a hands off approach to let them inhabit their characters well and provide flow and continuity to the telling of the story. Others who have contributed to the high quality of this production include narrators Robin Cheezum, John Fagan and Anne Robards, photography by Doug and Juliana Egge, audio mixing by Doug Egge and editing by Blair Dawkins. Proud Mary Theatre Company and its artistic director, Sandy Staggs, produced. A strong team indeed.

I strongly recommend you sitting down and viewing this fine production with others, if possible.

The Laramie Project streams through October 12. Suggested donation of $10 at proudmarytheatre.com.

If you wish to find out more about The Laramie Project go to https://www.thoughtco.com/the-laramie-project-overview-2713500 or, about Matthew Shepard himself go here, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/matthew_shepard.

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