Fourteen years has done little to affect the timeliness and poignancy of The Laramie Project, and The Seeing Place Theater in New York have gracefully captured the play’s beauty and power. The play tells the story of Matthew Shepard, an openly gay university student who in 1998 was brutally beaten and left to die by two young Laramie men. In the immediate aftermath of the murder, the sleepy town of Laramie became the subject of national scrutiny, forcing issues like a “live and let live” ethos of privacy, religious notions of sexuality, homophobia, and the “gay panic” defense into public discourse.
For two years, members of the New-York-based Tectonic Theater Project led by MoisÃ©s Kaufman travelled to Laramie to conduct interviews with members of the town and university communities. Curated, arranged, and stitched together, those interviews, along with excerpts from company members’ journals and transcripts from media and court proceedings have become the script for this documentary drama. All of its language comes verbatim from these sources, resulting in a distinct frankness. Often the script excludes the interviewers’ questions, increasing the show’s intimacy by giving us only responses: we feel often like these people are speaking directly to us, personally relating their stories with all their moral and ethical struggles.
In their tiny Hell’s Kitchen space, The Seeing Place company embraces and emphasizes that intimacy. The entire eight-person cast occupies the small stage at all times, only repositioning a few chairs, or adjusting a few costume elements to signal changes in location. More than fifty voices populate the play, so the performers must navigate among a wide array of characters. Changes in character are marked by simple devices like slight costumes or props, or a variety of voices, accents, and mannerisms. Often, cast members momentarily play narrator to identify a character by name. The transitions are smooth and, thanks in large part to the expert acting of the company members, and the nuanced direction of Erin Cronican and Brandon Walker, never confusing or muddled.
Much of the beauty of The Laramie Project arises from its exploratory stance. The play feels very much like the Tectonic members went to Laramie with genuine curiosity about the place and its people. There is never much question in the play or in the actual events about the victimization of Shepard and the atrociousness of the crime, so the play wisely does not waste time trying to prove either. Instead, the play examines the human element of the crime’s aftermath. Shepard’s killing forced Laramie and the nation to face very harsh realities about intolerance and the violence it might engender, and this play in part chronicles the process of Laramie’s community slowly beginning to examine those realities. Many are reluctant, some are obstinate, and others are willing if nonetheless surprised that they and the town they thought was so peaceful should be put in such a position.
Each of The Seeing Place’s actors deftly capture this variety of emotions. Logan Keeler, for example, seamlessly shifts from playing Jedadiah Shultz, a wide-eyed university student who won a scholarship in an acting competition by doing a scene from Angels in America to his parents’ dismay, to a grizzled Western owner of the bar where Shepard spent his last night, to both of Shepard’s killers at their trials. As is the case for all the cast, each character Keeler portrays is distinct, and fully developed in and of itself. It is perhaps Brandon Walker who is called upon to cover the widest variety of characterization and emotion, and he responds to that call with great expertise.
Although it works in the documentary mode, the play makes no claims of simple truth or solutions. One Laramie resident implores the Tectonic company in his interview “I will trust that if you write a play of this, that you say it right. You need to do your best to say it correct,” but if anything, The Laramie Project does its best to problematize and complicate notions of what is right and correct.
Of course it was wrong for Matthew Shepard to have been killed, but that is not what the play is about. Rather, it examines much more complex and troubling questions about how we understand our society, our place in it among other people, and the forces that influence those relationships. Doing away with the pretense of fictionalized dialogue, the play is free to explore the complexities lying on and throughout the surface of the everyday. The Seeing Place avoids the urge to impose closure on this play’s complications, showing the fortitude to dwell in the grey areas shading so much of how people endeavor to share a world with each other.