“The Laramie Project”

by Melinda Calvert
Published January 15, 2009

Little did anyone know that the horrifying death of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard would spur such a degree of public sympathy. After all, Matthew was gay. It might have stayed a small murder case in the Midwest except for the brutality and symbolism it conveyed, and had not Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project brought it to national attention. Due to Kaufman’s efforts, an outpouring of compassion and understanding has forever altered how we, as a society, feel about the subject.
Basically, the story is told in interviews with the townspeople who explain how they feel about what happened on that cold October night on the outskirts of Laramie. Tied to a fence and beaten almost to death, Matthew sat out in frigid temperatures without a coat or shoes for 18 hours before a passerby on a bike finally noticed him. He was tied so tightly the police had trouble slipping a knife through to cut the bonds. Miraculously, Matthew lived through the ordeal but died a few days later in hospital.
Over a two-year period, 200 interviews were conducted and 400 hours of transcripts were gathered. “The Laramie Project” was performed on stage in 2000 after having been reduced to a three-hour play with 67 characters. It became one of the Top Ten Plays of the year.
In 2002, members of the Tectonic Company, who originally conducted interviews in Laramie, were cast in the HBO-TV version of “The Laramie Project” along with Peter Fonda and Laura Linney. The NBC special, “The Matthew Shepard Story”, aired the same night.
One of this show’s star performers was behind the scenes instead of on the stage this time around. Director Michael Allen, is, without a doubt, one of the finest talents in the area. Or should I say “multi-talents.” He not only directs, but proves himself a fine actor. Since seeing his stellar performance in “Biloxi Blues,” I’ve been impressed with this talented gentleman’s work.
I’m just as moved by the cast, as there wasn’t a detectable misstep anywhere. The ensemble included Olev Aleksander, Jerad Callen, Tim Forsyth, Toni Loppnow, Susie McCarthy, Maria Pavone, Jason Schlatter, and Tiffany Towers with all of them carrying at least five parts each. Because there are so many characters in the play, it is difficult to keep up with “who is who,” but they are each introduced and the dialogue makes it fairly evident what they are about.
To be honest, though, I had an easier time recognizing some of the characters as I saw this play in Torrance last year; and, although the Kentwood Players have given it a singular look, there are some subtle differences. Instead of the eleven or so cast members in the previous version, Kentwood uses eight, as originally written. There are fewer props and the significant numbers of costume changes are done offstage or hidden from view. The lighting is also quite different. Both versions are superb, though, and both deserve high marks.
Director Michael Allen also designed the set and was the master carpenter. Tom Brophey handles the lighting while Susan Stangl takes care of the sound.
Posted on the wall at one end of the lobby is an assortment of news articles and photos of the events as they happened in 1998. A fitting memorial, I believe.
This show is a moving production that you won’t soon forget.
The Laramie Project runs through Feb 14 at the Westchester Playhouse, 8301 Hindry Ave in Westchester. Performances, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets, $18 general (less $2 for seniors, students and servicemen). (310) 645-5156 or visit online at go to kentwoodplayers.org. ER