In her program notes, Brie Yost noted that one of her theater colleagues told her: “Tacoma is not ready for ‘The Laramie Project.’” Sometimes plays force people to address difficult subject matter. “The Laramie Project” does so in a very powerful manner. People should see it, regardless if some local playgoers may not be ready for it.
Tacoma Little Theatre is staging this play, inspired by the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming. The writers, Moises Kaufman and members of Tectonic Theater Project, made several visits to Laramie. The play is the result of their conversations with residents.
The play takes place after Shepard’s death. It examines various time frames, such as the several days after he was beaten, when he lay in a hospital bed in critical condition before dying; and the legal proceedings for the two young men who were charged and convicted.
Reporters from around the nation descended on the small college town. They are portrayed interviewing people, and Kaufman and his colleagues operate in a similar manner.
The cast consists of Jen Aylsworth, Russ Coffey, Mike Cooper, Rachel Fitzgerald, Marty MacKenzie, Jefri Peters, Mark Peterson, Tiffani Pike and Jeremy Thompson. Each cast member has numerous roles. For example, Thompson’s roles include Kaufman, Shepard’s father, a Catholic priest and the governor. A screen above the stage flashes the name of the character, which helps the audience keep track of who is speaking.
The set is basic but effective. One prop that appears a few times is the fence to which Shepard was tied while beaten. A television screen above comes on a few times when Peterson, when portraying a hospital administrator, gives updates to the media on Shepard’s condition and upon his death.
Laramie’s religious leaders are interviewed – a Catholic priest, Baptist minister, bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the leader of the Unitarian Universalists. They offer insight into the social and cultural fabric of the town. We learn the killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, had religion in their lives. One was raised Mormon, while the other occasionally attended the Baptist minister’s church.
Actors change from character to character quickly, often by donning a hat or shirt backstage and adjusting their voice, from a dignified college professor to the casual tone of a young tavern customer. It is a great cast under the guidance of Yost, an excellent director.
Shepard’s murder has been widely portrayed as a hate crime. Certainly hostility toward gay men was a factor in the rage the killers displayed. Comments from townspeople, however, made this reviewer ponder additional motives. A friend of the killers noted their use of methamphetamine, a drug known to make some people paranoid and violent. They allegedly committed a similar crime before in another town, beating a gay man in a robbery. Shepard was very small for a 21-year-old man, making him an easy target. His parents were well off; he wore expensive shoes and perhaps had other valuable items (an expensive watch, perhaps, or a nice leather jacket). Shepard was killed due to his sexual orientation, but he likely was targeted as well for his wallet.
Each performance is followed by a question and answer session with the cast. It is well worth staying for. Due to the subject matter, the play is not recommended for those under the age of 13.
“The Laramie Project” runs through June 23. Shows times are 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. on Sundays. For more information visit http://www.tacomalittletheatre.com or call (253) 272-2281.