`Laramie' reveals ramifications of Shepard's death

Nearly flawless cast shows how attack affected entire town

Theater Review

July 30, 2002|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

The gleaming amber backdrop for the Olney Theatre Center's production of The Laramie Project is as vast as the Wyoming sky.

Sometimes, it's a mirror in which the audience is reflected as it ponders the brutal slaying of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard because he was gay. Sometimes, it's a screen on which images are projected of a sheriff's badge, or the fence to which the dying young man was tied. Sometimes, it's a sheer curtain behind which the actors sit while they look out at us.

We are both the observers and the observed - just like the people of Laramie, Wyo.

The Laramie Project is a piece of theatrical journalism that was created after Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming, was robbed, pistol-whipped and tied to a fence in an isolated area as temperatures plunged into the 30s. When he was discovered 18 hours later, there were only two clean streaks on his blood-soaked face - streaks caused by his tears.

The following month, members of the Tectonic Theatre Project in New York paid the first of six visits to Laramie, where they conducted more than 200 interviews.

It's key that Shepard never appears in the play, and his attackers, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney (who were sentenced to life in prison), appear only briefly. Instead, the play focuses on the townspeople, as nine actors portray 58 roles. In its emphasis on ordinary people and in its structure - occasionally, members of the theater company address the audience directly - The Laramie Project is reminiscent of Thornton Wilder's Our Town.

The voices of Laramie's citizens are unfailingly revealing, eloquent and gripping: There's Reggie Fluty, the sheriff's deputy who became exposed to HIV while cutting Matthew loose from the fence; Romaine Patterson, a lesbian waitress and aspiring rock star who discovers a talent for community activism; and Zedadiah Schultz, a 19-year-old theater student from a conservative background whose attitude toward homosexuality undergoes a seismic shift.

The decision to have the actors portray multiple townspeople probably was made for practical reasons; few theater companies can support a cast of 58. But here, necessity serves a thematic purpose. When an actor switches characters before our eyes, it emphasizes the connections between them. It's not a matter of good people and bad people, them and us. The play seems to be saying that we're more alike than different in all of our egregious failings and occasional flashes of nobility.

The cast is virtually flawless. Special honors go to Christopher Lane, who portrays the chief police investigator and the Mormon president of the hospital where Matthew lingered for six days and died; Susan Lynskey as a salty, ribald senior citizen and a Muslim student who suffers from subtle discrimination; and Harry Winter as a limousine driver and a 52-year-old gay man who feels accepted by the Laramie community for the first time after he watches a parade of Matthew's supporters.

The only moment that feels forced is the climactic speech in which Matthew's father asks the judge to spare McKinney's life. That scene usually is the emotional climax of the play, but Paul Morella seems to be forcing both his rage and his tears.

The Laramie Project is not a perfect play. The first act flies by, while the second act starts to feel like an ordeal. At 2 1/2 hours, the play is too long. The creators try to impose a narrative arc on material that resists it; real-life seldom offers the sense of redemption that allows people to leave the theater feeling good.

The play would be even more effective if it cut the courtroom scenes and focused on what it creates so well - an indelible slice of life in a place which is both Laramie and Anytown, U.S.A.

Laramie Project

Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road

When: 7:30 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays; 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. some Saturdays and all Sundays. Through Aug. 11

Admission: $15-$35

Call: 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org

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