THE LARAMIE PROJECT: The Magnitude of Hate
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
Richmond Triangle Players
At: The Robert B Moss Theatre, 1300 Altamont Avenue, RVA 23230
Performances: September 26 – October 19, 2018
Ticket Prices: $10-35
Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org
Created by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project, The Laramie Project is based on the true events surrounding the 1998 beating and death of Matthew Shepard, a gay man, while he was a student at the University of Wyoming. The words of the play are the words of the people of Laramie, gathered by the authors over a series of interviews. Real people. Real issues. Real tears.
The beauty of the script lies in its unadorned simplicity. Eight actors portray about sixty different characters as they examine the story from the perspectives of the people of Laramie, students and faculty at the university, the media, and the personal experiences of the members of the Tectonic Theater Project.
Running nearly three hours with two intermissions, director Lucian Restivo has maintained a moderate pace that allows the characters to come across as authentic and feels almost like real time. Multiple perspectives are presented, friend, foe, and undecided. From incident to trial, some points of view shift as people examine themselves and some are surprised at what they find inside.
The Laramie Project is set in a rustic space of wooden walls and shelves with a few chairs on multiple levels designed by Restivo, who also designed the sound, and with lighting by Michael Jarett that sometimes resembles sepia-toned photographs. The physical tone almost makes this play feel as if it is dragging the viewer back in time into the wild, wild west, although the events took place only twenty years ago. The more striking and unfortunate thing is that this sort of hate crime could have been stripped directly from the latest breaking news.
The excellent cast consists of Rachel Dilliplane, Annella Kaine, Amber Marie Martinez, Cole Metz, Jacqueline O’Connor, Stevie Rice, Adam Turck, and Scott Wichmann. It would be difficult and unfair to speak of specific characters, as at any given time each of these versatile actors switches from one role to another, changing voice, accent, stance, and perhaps a shirt or hat. Scott Wichmann is often placed in the role of narrator, as project leader Kaufman, and some much needed humor is provided by O’Connor as a spunky citizen and Rice as an outrageous limousine driver.
The Laramie Project is difficult to watch because it is so real and because people involved in the incident are still alive. No details of the attack on Matthew Shepard are spared as the doctor and judge provide blow by blow details of the attack and its effects, leading to coma and eventually death. There is a section of documentary footage, and there are the incomprehensible protests by the Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, whose members are known to show up to protest at the funerals of gay people. We get to hear the words of the two assailants, Aaron McKinney and Russel Henderson, as they are sentenced after their separate trials. Their images surround the audience in 43” x 43” oil pastel portraits by artist Michael Pierce.
The Laramie Project is an all-encompassing theatrical experience that requires a huge team effort. There are actors, a team of writers, a large creative team, community partnerships, and the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which is dedicated to human rights advocacy. It’s hard to tell where the play stops and real life begins. But the tears. . .the tears are all real.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: John MacLellan