The Laramie Project is an emotionally powerful play full of outstanding performances from an exceptionally talented cast.
I remember watching the TV show Laramie in the 1960s when westerns were more prevalent on our screens. The images of wide open plains and cowboys and ranchers living and fighting in the wild west were exotic fare, far removed from city life here. Laramie from now on will mean something very different. The tragic murder of a gay man, Matthew Shepard, in October 1998 thrust Laramie into the world spotlight and the circumstances and their repercussions resonate with us all now wherever we live.
The play by Moises Kaufman and Members of the Tectonic Theatre Project has been expertly conjured by Director Brant Eustice. This play is a living documentary using the verbatim words of the Laramie residents involved or affected by the murder. Various narrators acting as audible subtitles identify the speakers. The magnificent ensemble cast of ten brings to life the voices, feelings, prejudices, fears and hopes of over sixty people at the time of the incident and in the aftermath of trial and punishment.
Tom Tassone, Samuel Creighton, Anita Zamberlan Canala, Sharon Malujlo, Chris Gun, Matt Houston, Jasmine Leech, Nadia Talotta, Nick Kennett, and Cheryl Douglas give consistently excellent performances no matter how many times they change character, age or gender.
Samuel Creighton demonstrates his dramatic range portraying a variety of characters – County Sherriff Rob Debree, Rulon Stacey the CEO of the hospital, Catholic priest Father Roger Schmidt and Jonas Slonaker an openly gay Laramie man. Rulon Stacey’s final words to the media at the hospital are very moving. Tom Tassone uses his powerful voice and stature to full effect playing both a murderer Aaron McKinney and the judge who sentences him in one of the most gripping scenes. Matt Houston somehow covers thirteen roles including Moises Kaufman Laramie Project author, Stephen Johnson a Unitarian minister, and rancher Murdock Cooper with an imposing stage presence. He also delivers an emotional performance as Dennis Shepard giving his statement at the trial of his son’s murderer. Chris Gun gives strong performances as some of the town’s well-known characters in Matt Galloway the bartender, Doc O’Connor the limo driver and as Reverend Fred Phelps the fiery Baptist minister. Jasmine Leech also gives fine and sensitive performances as Matthew’s friend Romaine Patterson, and Aaron Kreifels the university student who finds Matthew’s body. Nick Kennett is excellent as theatre student Jebadiah Schultz who becomes a touchstone for the issues in the play and a sign of hope for future change. In contrast Nick also plays the second murderer Russell Henderson in another emotional court scene. Sharon Malujlo and Nadia Talotta add some relatively lighter moments in their convincing interaction as mother and daughter Marge Murray and police officer Regie Fluty. Cheryl Douglas gives a very good performance as the ‘Biblicist’ Baptist Minister, and in another scene is also the Baptist minister’s wife. Anita Zamberlan Canala is well cast as Rebecca Hilliker a university academic and first contact for the Teutonic Theatre Project, amongst her many other minor roles.
Using a minimalist set of platform blocks, a stark timber log fence as a backdrop and targeted lighting, the players recreate the town through the interviews conducted at the time. Costume changes occur within the well-choreographed flow of the play and with something as simple as the addition of a hat a different character appears. This is fascinating to watch.
Ultimately it is all about the voices as Matthew’s story is brought to life in the words of those who knew him, and also by those who were prejudiced against him. This is done very effectively and clearly by every member of the cast in their myriad roles.
This is a well-crafted play that presents the facts from as many perspectives as possible and in a non-judgemental way. It ultimately raises hope that positive changes may spring from tragic circumstances.
The Laramie Project is an engrossing and thought provoking theatrical experience that should not be missed.