‘The Laramie Project’ remains relevant 20 years after Matthew Shepard’s murder

Openly gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was killed by two young men of Laramie, Wyo., in October 1998.

During the year after his death, playwright Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project visited Laramie six times, conducting more than 200 interviews. They then compiled and edited these interviews to create “The Laramie Project,” being staged by Palo Alto Players.

Although Shepard’s murder garnered worldwide attention at the time and although attitudes toward homosexuality have softened in the ensuing 20 years, homophobia and other prejudices haven’t disappeared.

Hence this play remains relevant as well as extremely moving. As artistic director Patrick Klein says in his program notes, “… our current administration has drawn out the undercurrent of bigotry that still festers in parts of our great nation …”

However, as managing director Elizabeth Santana said on opening night, “This is a story of hope.” That’s why the program includes a note card for viewers to write something they can do to show kindness and compassion. The cards are posted in the lobby.

Sensitively directed by Lee Ann Payne, eight actors portray dozens of characters, most of them Laramie residents. As Act 1 begins, they talk about how much they like their town with its population of about 27,200.

As that act ends, the hospital CEO reads a statement from Shepard’s family requesting privacy while he clings to life in the intensive care unit. Act 2 revolves around his death and the trials of his assailants.

The assailants left a bar with Shepard and drove out of town, where they savagely beat him, tied him to fence and left him. Fifteen hours later, Aaron Kreifels, a university freshman bicycling along that remote road found him and summoned help. Several times during his interview he wonders why God chose him to find Shepard.

First to respond was Sheriff’s Deputy Reggie Fluty. She cut the unconscious Shepard loose and says that the only place on his face not caked with blood was where tears had fallen. It’s a startling revelation.

Others who speak are the bartender who was the last to see Shepard before he left, Shepard’s college counselor, his friends, various clergymen, a lesbian professor and a doctor.

A theater major talks about how he won a scholarship to the university by doing a scene from “Angels in America,” but his parents refused to watch him because of the play’s gay theme. There’s even a Muslim student who proudly wears a hijab.

A lesbian student and her friends don angel outfits and surround hate-preaching minister Fred Phelps with their wings, essentially hiding him from view.

It’s a marvelous work by an ensemble cast featuring Jeff Clarke, Josiah Frampton, Kelly Hudson, Judith Miller, Dana Cordelia Morgan, Roneet Aliza Rahamim, Brad Satterwhite and Todd Wright.

The spare set by Nikolaj Sorensen (with lighting by Patrick Mahoney) comprises mainly a few chairs and a backdrop of three windows showing his projections of various scenes in the city and, touchingly, the fence where Shepard was found.

The subtle sound is by Jeff Grafton. Melissa Sanchez designed costumes that facilitate quick character changes.

Everything adds up to a provocative, memorable theatrical experience, a must-see.

Running about two and half hours with one intermission, “The Laramie Project” will continue through Feb. 4 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. For tickets and information, call (650) 329-0891 or visit www.paplayers.org.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author

Judy RichterJudy reviews San Francisco Bay Area theater and writes feature articles about activities of the Stanford women's basketball team and Fast Break Club. A longtime Bay Area journalist, she is retired from the San Francisco Chronicle, where she was a writer and copy editor.View all posts by Judy Richter →