Anyone wondering about the continued relevance of a play about a murder two decades ago in a small Wyoming town only needed to look at Thursday’s news coming out of Washington, D.C.
PROVINCETOWN – Anyone wondering about the continued relevance of a play about a murder two decades ago in a small Wyoming town only needed to look at Thursday’s news coming out of Washington, D.C.
Provincetown Theater opened its powerful, fine-tuned production of “The Laramie Project,” about the hate-crime beating of gay college student Matthew Shepard, on Thursday night, just hours before the 20th anniversary of Shepard dying of his injuries.
That performance also came just hours after the announcement that Shepard’s ashes will be interred later this month inside a crypt at the Washington National Cathedral. His parents had long feared desecration of any final resting place, but this center of Episcopalian worship in Washington was hailed in interviews with them and activists as a safe space – even in this era of increasing political divisions. It was also recognized as a place where Shepard’s memory can be visited as a symbol both for gay equality and the consequences of hate.
Such topics are front and center in “The Laramie Project,” written in 2000 by members of Moises Kaufman’s New York City-based Tectonic Theater Project and based on more than 200 interviews conducted in Laramie about the murder and its effects on the community. Leigh Fondakowski, gracefully directing Provincetown’s poignant, in-the-round production, was one of the original company members involved and is actually a character in the play.
In Provincetown, 10 actors create several characters each, portraying the people related to the incident and town, working ably as a tight ensemble with lines bouncing from one to the next as the story is revealed in short, staccato sentences and scenes. The script shows how the play was written, using the interview device as a way to tie together people as varied as Matthew’s friends, a bartender, religious leaders, law-enforcement officers, townspeople (some also gay) and journalists who reported on the murder and its sensational aftermath.
The play has an added layer of resonance because it’s all true, told in the words of people who were there. Different points of view are represented, including a man who believed Shepard’s death was half his fault because he was gay, and a woman who said Laramie had to own the fact that it was then indeed “that kind of town” where a hate crime could happen.
The script for “Laramie Project” first offers a sense of Wyoming as a place to live, then explores Shepard and his college life. Brief scenes recount his meeting his soon-to-be murderers in a bar, the horrific beating they gave him before tying his bloody body to a fence far from town, a bicyclist’s discovering of a barely breathing Shepard, the victim’s hospitalization and death, the worldwide news coverage of the hate crime, the criminal trials of his attackers, and the protests between sides squared off over his homosexuality.
The production has a few instances of actors not distinguishing characters enough from each other, or not effectively engaging with the entire audience in the in-the-round format. But far more often, the actors beautifully conjure a community, a crisis and the distinct, telling parts of both. All of the actors give affecting performances, with John Dennis Anderson having the most moving speeches and delivering them brilliantly. He plays both a hospital leader who is embarrassed after he breaks down on national television while reporting Shepard’s death, and – most wrenchingly – Shepard’s father, relating why his family made the decision it did after his son’s convicted killer faced a possible death penalty.
Tom Sharp, Andrew Clemons and Sam Sewell (who also adds much to the play’s mood with her guitar-playing) stand out as most impressively being able to move quickly between very different and memorable characters. Fondakowski and her actors cleverly use just small changes – a vest, a pair of glasses, a hat, a kerchief – to switch the roles in a space where they are all on stage or hovering just off it almost all of the time.
Similarly, just a bench, a chair, or a post in Ellen Rousseau’s stark, rustic set design can make all the difference in depicting a sense of location. Small lanterns are used not only to change the show’s lighting, but are picked up to serve as TV cameras. Sewell has created a soundtrack, including the whistling wind of the prairie, which adds much to location-setting, while the actors themselves also provide a variety of sound effects.
“The Laramie Project” concludes with an epilogue recounting what happened after the media circus was over, how the writers felt about leaving the town, and how the residents’ perception of homosexuality changed because of Shepard and what happened to him. One character voices worry about whether Shepard’s death would make a difference: “What’s come out of this that’s concrete or lasting?”
Beyond producing the play, the theater is making other efforts to address that question. A makeshift memorial, lit by battery-operated candles, in the theater lobby has a photo and brief explanation of Shepard in the center, surrounded by similar memorials to others who were murdered or committed suicide because they were gay – including victims of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida. The theater will also hold a series of post-Sunday-matinee “community conversations” with panels of experts about topics raised by the play.
In an interview this week, Shepard’s father said the Washington National Cathedral, with his son’s ashes, will now be a place “where there’s an actual chance for others to sit and reflect about Matthew, and about themselves, and about their friends.”
With its exemplary anniversary production of “Laramie Project,” Provincetown Theater has created its own opportunity for just that here on Cape Cod.