The Events of Oct. 6, 1998 — when gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was beaten and left tied to a fence to die — are powerfully examined in “The Laramie Project,” an extraordinary work of theatrical journalism now being produced by Salt Lake City’s Plan-B Theatre Company.
Written by Moises Kaufman and his Tectonic Theatre Project participants, the stories told in the play by several dozen Laramie residents are the people’s own words. Kaufman and company conducted more than 200 interviews in the months following the murder, and those people are brought vividly to life by a company of eight actors.
Initially, the style is jarring. There is very little dialogue among the townspeople; mostly they speak directly to the audience, saying what they said to the interviewers. Many of these speeches, despite consisting of real words actually spoken at one point by real people, sound too much like “acting”: The combination of authentic monologues and theatrical trappings seems like an awkward one. (One actor, Jedediah Schultz, was a student at University of Wyoming and plays himself in “The Laramie Project.” One would think his lines, most of all, would sound natural.)
Shortly, however, the play settles into a groove and draws the attention forward. One grows accustomed to the format and becomes engrossed in the many, many little stories being told.
Kirt Bateman plays a gay professor, Jonas Slonaker, who expresses the fear he felt after what happened to Matthew. Colleen Baum is Romaine Patterson, a close friend of Matthew’s who couldn’t imagine anyone behaving as cruelly as his killers did. Anita Booher is Marge Murray, a reserved old woman whose daughter, Reggie, is a police officer; Joyce Cohen plays Reggie, who may have been infected with Matthew’s HIV-positive blood at the crime scene. Carl Nelson plays Russell Henderson, the less-vicious of Matthew’s two killers.
Lynn Frost, former artistic director at Provo Theatre Company, has one of the play’s most astounding moments as Dennis Shepard — Matthew’s father. He poignantly addresses his son’s other killer, Aaron McKinney, with a speech as moving and heart-rending as anything you’ll ever hear.
Playing McKinney is Jedediah Schultz, whose portrayal of himself rings puzzlingly untrue but who nails every other role he has in the show. He stares, teary and glassy-eyed, over the audience as Mr. Shepard makes that final speech. You could hear a pin drop. His confession scene is just as amazing, and so is his utterly personal depiction of Aaron Kreifels, the unfortunate young man who happened to find Matthew’s body.
If the show has a fault, it is the caricatures that the anti-gay characters are made out to be. It is too easy to make us despise them when they appear to be such cartoons; surely they are still real people, hateful though they may be.
Directed by Jerry Rapier, “The Laramie Project” importantly and emphatically urges the viewer to examine his own views. Whatever one’s position on homosexuality, though, the shocking tragedy and senselessness of the murder of Matthew Shepard comes through loud and clear.
Quite and unusual and extraordinary piece of work. I remember when it was first staged in New York in 2000, and I happened to be there on vacation at the time. I wanted to see it then, and I was glad I had the chance later, in my own backyard (more or less).