Being only 21 years old, I’m lucky that I don’t know a lot of people who have died. But I have been to a funeral once in my life. After it was over, a few of us went to dinner and one of my friends said, “That wasn’t for Paul at all; it was for us.”
This was the feeling surrounding “The Laramie Project,” which premiered Oct. 22 at Cyrano’s Off Center Playhouse. The play focuses on the events surrounding the murder of Matthew Shepard. Yet, the play is not really about the deceased at all, but about the community of a small Wyoming town that comes to grips with tragedy.
In 1998, Matthew Shepard, a young gay man living in Laramie, Wyo., was savagely beaten, tied to a fence and left to die. He eventually succumbed to his injuries. Soon afterward, members of a theater troupe in New York made several trips to Laramie and conducted many interviews with the residents. The dialogue of the play is taken directly from these interviews, as well as journal entries from the group and court transcripts from the murder trial. This play is thus a non-fiction documentary, which makes it all the more powerful.
Shepard’s death is seen by many as a hate-crime. He was targeted solely because he was gay. The citizens of Laramie have always considered themselves a place where people live and let live, a preconception that is smashed by the awful crime. Many of the residents are in shock and disbelief when they see such violence happen in their quiet little town, but before the healing process can really begin the media descend on the small community. The murder and the town quickly become the center of national attention and demonstrators both pro- and anti-gay swoop in like hawks to use the death for their own purposes. Whether or not Shepard was killed simply for the fact he was gay remains ambiguous.
Ten actors, who together play over 60 characters, perform the play. The cast is supremely talented and under the superb direction of Christian Heppinstall, they move the action along swiftly and smoothly. They portray the reactions of people, from the bigoted to the bleeding heart, with skill and subtle differences that effectively create the illusion of a cast of thousands and generate the feeling of an entire town of people grieving.
The message of the play is crystal clear: it doesn’t matter that Shepard was gay. What the town has to come to terms with is the fact that one human being could so viciously attack and callously slaughter another human being. There is a reason the play is called “The Laramie Project” and not “The Shepard Project.” It is not about hatred and intolerance or even about the horrible crime, but the honest yearning of the townspeople to process their shock and sadness, come to terms with their emotions and move on. This is one of the more moving plays to be performed in Anchorage in years and its effects will undoubtedly stay with the viewer for a long time.