KPBS AIRDATE: August 2001
In November, 1998, ten members of Moisés Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater Project left New York for Laramie, Wyoming. They set out to uncover the back-story and the aftermath of the monstrous murder of Matthew Shepard, the gay college student who was driven by two young rednecks out to a prairie wasteland, where he was brutally beaten and then tied to a fence where he hung, virtually crucified, for 18 grueling hours.
It’s a horrific story, which captured the world’s attention. Kaufman saw it as a seminal moment in American history, which concerned not only sexual politics, but also class, culture and privilege. After six visits and 200 interviews, his company created a docudrama that paints perhaps the most colorful and compelling picture of small-town America since “Our Town,” which at times it pointedly resembles. But this play looks beneath the smooth surface to reveal the shadow and light beneath — the everyday good guys and bad guys, with their warmth and compassion, biases and bigotry, hypocrisy and integrity.
Instead of the objective re-enactments of Anna Deveare Smith, this cast intersperses their own journal and diary entries with the words of the shell-shocked residents of Laramie. The actor/writers were welcomed into homes, drawn into families, privy to the most awful and intimate thoughts of the people of Laramie. They couldn’t walk away untouched or unemotional.
Their highly acclaimed play has been successfully mounted around the world, in other, hopefully as capable hands. But what a rare treat for us, courtesy of the La Jolla Playhouse and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, to be able to witness the original cast, with all their grace, wit, talent, charm and emotion intact. Most of the 8 performers portray themselves plus myriad other characters, brilliantly transforming with just a change of hat, scarf or posture, as the play jump-cuts from the bar to the university, from homes to hospital to prairie to courtroom. The staging is beautifully spare, Betsy Adams’ moody lighting underscoring Robert Brill’s evocative set — fluffy white, Big Sky clouds in Act 1 gradually giving way to a darker, dimmer palate, a rainfall, wheat fields and by Act 3, bleak, black-&-white projections of a creepily desolate country road.. All the players are strong, but some are especially versatile: Stephen Belber, Amanda Gronich & Kelli Simpkins.
It’s a gut-wrenching evening, to be sure, though there are many laughs, too. But these events could have happened anywhere. These are the voices of our neighbors speaking their truths in terrible times — our times. It’s hard to turn away, it’s hard not to think Big Thoughts And it’s equally hard to ignore what a provocative season Des McAnuff has brought to San Diego with his return to the La Jolla Playhouse. This one reaches the pinnacle. “The Laramie Project” is a powerful evening of theater you dare not miss.
©2001 Patté Productions Inc