Big Sky, Big Tragedy, Big Learning Experience
By Pat Launer
It was bittersweet to revisit “The Laramie Project” at Coronado School for the Arts. While the play is powerful and the well-executed production is extremely well done, the story it tells is horrific and its aftermath, alas, not much better.
In 1998, a gay college student, Matthew Shepard , was brutally beaten and then tied to a backcountry fence where he hung for 18 grueling, gruesome hours. A few days later, he died.
Shortly after the event that shocked the world, acclaimed director Moisés Kaufman and ten members of his Tectonic Theater Project traveled from New York to Laramie , Wyoming , to interview the shell-chocked townspeople. What came out of those six visits and 200 interviews was a gut-wrenching docudrama, in which the actors portrayed themselves as well as the various people they had met and talked to. It’s a stunning piece of theater, in every sense of the word.
In 2001, the La Jolla Playhouse hosted a production featuring the original cast. In 2009, local actors and notables came to the Playhouse to participate in one of 150 worldwide readings of the epilogue to the play, “The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later.” The Tectonic cast went back to Laramie to speak to the same folks and check on the long-term effects of the senseless act.
And here we are, in 2011, with hate crimes, bullying, homophobia and premature gay adolescent death still prominent in the news. The follow-up interviews did not live up to the strong sense of hope and healing that ended the first play. Instead, many of the residents of Laramie were whitewashing history, asserting that Matthew wasn’t the victim of a hate crime; it was a botched robbery, or a drug deal gone bad . The fence, which had become a place for pilgrimage, was torn down. And on the campus of the University of Wyoming , there’s only a tiny plaque paying tribute to Matthew, tucked away in a corner.
But “The Laramie Project” came before all that. And that’s what’s on display at CoSA , the heartrending mix of honesty, sensitivity, hypocrisy and bigotry. The play forces audiences (as well as participants) to examine their own views on sexual politics, human rights, human dignity, hatred and the American class/culture divide. Which makes it even more impressive that director Kim Strassburger, faculty member at the Coronado School of the Arts, included students from Coronado High School , Middle School and Palm Academy , the alternative school where she also teaches. The more young people who confront these issues head-on, the better and more tolerant our society will be – present and future.
The cast of 22 is variable; there are stage veterans from CoSA’s Musical Theatre and Drama Program and others making their theater debuts. But in their earnestness, they blend well. Some convey accents and depth of character. A few rush or mumble their lines, but together, they effectively express all the heartache, rage, compassion and incredulity of the Laramie residents, backed by compelling projections (designed by Dillon Evans) of the town and its beautiful, Big Sky environs. Under Strassburger’s expert guidance, they do a masterful job. This is a play and production that mustn’t be missed.
“The Laramie Project” continues at 7pm January 14 and 15, at Coronado High’s Performing Arts Center . Tickets ($6-16) are available at cosafoundation.org.
Due to adult language and subject matter, the show is recommended for age 13 and above.