reviewed by Larry Adams

Laramie sparkles, doesn’t it?”

  • Matthew Shepard (1976-1998)

On the evening of October 6th, 1998, Matthew Shepard, an openly gay university student, was kidnapped, robbed, bound to a fence, beaten, tortured and left for dead in a cold, remote area near Laramie, Wyoming. Discovered comatose and barely clinging to life eighteen hours later, he was rushed to Ivinson Memorial Hospital in Laramie, then transferred to the more advanced trauma unit of Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he died 6 days later, never regaining consciousness. Within 24 hours local police had apprehended the perpetrators, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, but the citizens of Laramie found themselves quickly and reluctantly in the international spotlight, their heads spinning and their beloved town decried worldwide as a symbol of hate and intolerance.

Less than four weeks after the brutal attack, playwright Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project traveled from New York to Laramie, conducting hundreds of interviews with the townspeople. Those interviews, along with news reports, journal entries and court documents, were then fashioned by Kaufman and others into The Laramie Project, first performed in 2000 in Denver. Last night I attended the opening night of its latest incarnation, this time in Lebanon, Indiana.

Center Stage Community Theatre in Lebanon has taken on a weighty and perhaps even risky challenge in bringing The Laramie Project to a local community theater stage. It is not a drama, at least in the colloquial sense of the word. It is not a mystery or a thriller. It is certainly not a crowd-pleasing comedy, though there are several surprisingly humorous moments. It is, in fact, not really a traditional “play” at all. Termed “verbatim theater,” it consists of eight actors portraying over fifty characters in a series of short scenes taken directly from the interviews and other transcripts, mostly presented as monologues delivered directly to the audience. The subject matter is, of course, controversial, heart-rending, and at times utterly uncomfortable to watch.

But it works.

To the credit of the script, the director and the actors, the citizens of Laramie are presented as three dimensional- not, for the most part, simple stereotypes (conservative Christian preachers, predictably, take some hits as the closest to cartoon villain portrayals, but surprisingly not so much as one might expect from modern theater). The play resists descending into the lazy and utterly tiresome demonization that characterizes most of current public discourse on controversial subjects; instead, we see a town full of people much like ourselves and our neighbors: complicated amalgams of prejudice, tolerance, guilt, pride, ambition, joy, pain, and fear- and yes, both good and evil. And we uneasily come to realize over the course of the evening that Laramie is us. That what happened there was not some anomalous horror which could only happen to “them.” That we all have the potential to be these people, perhaps even to be a Matthew- or even, if we dare admit it, an Aaron or a Russel.

Director Matt Trgovac has assembled and shaped a fine cast who, to a person, give heartfelt performances in bringing this tragedy to life in all its shades and permutations. From a strictly technical viewpoint, the talent level on stage is at times uneven (as one must quite frankly expect in any large community theater cast), but this never rises to a level as to be distracting, and in any case is more than offset by the sincere portrayals of the performers. The cast, I suspect at least in part due to the talent and passion of its director, has fully bought into the message of this play, to a degree I seldom see in community theater, and the audience can therefore not help but buy into it as well. The tears shed on stage, I’m quite sure, are genuine, and often matched by those of the audience.

Standout performances are given by Becky Larsen and, somewhat surprisingly, by stage newcomer Tristan Wolf, who displays the widest most developed range of characterizations of all the cast as well as a delivery style so seemingly effortless and natural that I must admit it made me, as a sometime actor, more than a bit jealous. All, however, are more than worthy of the bows which they as a cast have, quite appropriately given the tone of the play, declined to take at the curtain.

My only significant quibbles with the production are directed at the script, and though they are perhaps more a reflection on my limited attention span and lack of theatrical sophistication than the piece itself, they deserve mention. First, an easy fifteen to twenty minutes could be cut from the two-and-a-half-hour runtime with absolutely no loss to the narrative. It takes far too long to slog into a story with which every audience member is surely already familiar, and a number of the brief interview excerpts are wedged in for no discernable reason- vignettes that not only fail to advance the story and emotion, but in fact sap the momentum. Similarly, the documentary style of the piece feels better suited to, well, a documentary than to a stage production. The dearth of character interaction and development would seem to waste one of the major strengths of live theater. Nevertheless, The Laramie Project is a powerful piece that leaves its audience both drained and moved as the curtain figuratively falls at the end of the show.

And one final comment, a heartfelt word of praise for that ending. I’m not sure who to credit for this, but the final tableau presented on stage, after the actors have exited, the applause has died, and the lights have dimmed, is simultaneously chilling and sad and beautiful and horrible- and, I’m afraid, will both haunt me and impress me for years to come. Whoever you are: well done.

I’ve often remarked that, although community and professional theaters clearly must cater to the popular and “put butts in the seats” to remain solvent, they should each reserve at least one slot in their respective seasons for a piece that will challenge themselves as well as their audiences. It will rarely sell as well, but its impact will be more lasting. This is what elevates theater beyond mere entertainment. The Laramie Project does just that, and I commend Trgovac, his cast, and Center Stage Community Theatre for taking the risk and raising the bar for community theater in central Indiana.

The Laramie Project continues through July 28th,  Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:30 pm at Center Stage’s theatre in Lebanon. You may call 765.894.5587 for reservations and information. Their website is http://www.centerstagetheatre.org .