Theatre Review: ‘The Laramie Project’ at Theatrical Outfit

Photos by Casey Gardner

Theatrical Outfit is presenting “The Laramie Project,” directed by Clifton Guterman, running in repertory with Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” Both running through Sept. 29, and you can read my review of “Our Town” at this link.

Twenty-one years ago next month, a 21-year-old University of Wyoming college student was brutally murdered just outside the town of Laramie, Wyoming. He was beaten, pistol-whipped, tied to a fence and left to die on Oct. 6, 1998. His broken body was found 18 hours later; he was unconscious but still alive. He was completely unknown outside a small circle of friends and family.

By the time he died on Oct. 12, much of the civilized world knew who Matthew Shepard was: the gay college student who’d been viciously killed in a hate crime. Many other people have died in hate crimes, before and after Matthew. But for some reason, the Zeitgeist decreed that he should become very widely known, perhaps because he looked a bit like everyone’s little brother, only five feet, two inches tall and possessing a sweet, innocent, vulnerable face.

Let me say at the outset that Theatrical Outfit is presenting what may be the most perfectly conceived, produced, and performed drama in their history; in fact, I would stop reading this review right now and order tickets for “The Laramie Project.” I think they will start selling out post-haste.

And please don’t think, “Oh, this will be too sad and depressing for me; I can’t take it.” Well, of course it’s sad, but it also shimmers with hope and humanity. It’s the “don’t miss” play of the season, if not the year—that is, if you love theatre.

Shortly after Matthew Shepard’s death, New York’s Tectonic Theater Project, led by Moisés Kaufman, journeyed to Laramie and conducted extensive interviews with its citizens. They combined these with company members’ own journal entries and published news reports, such as the emergency room doctor who said his mind at first refused accept the idea that what was done to Matthew was done by human hands. Kaufman and his team have given us a compelling, moving work of theatrical journalism.

By 2000 the play opened, first in Denver and later in New York. There was an HBO movie in 2002. I’ve seen several live productions of “The Laramie Project,” including the New York original; I’ve also seen the HBO film; and I say without hesitation that the 10 professional actors who bring this true story to life at the Outfit have been inspired (so has Mr. Guterman), and this production is the finest, most deeply felt version I’ve been privileged to witness.

Ten actors play more than 60 people in a series of short scenes. If this sounds like a hodgepodge, it’s not. There are three acts, two intermissions in the two hour 30 minutes production. Not a moment is wasted.

What Kaufman and the Tectonic writers are after here is not really a portrait of Matthew Shepard, but the ethos or soul of a town. And herein lies the brilliance of this piece of documentary theatre, as one by one, the citizens of Laramie and a few outsiders begin to reveal themselves. Matthew is never seen, but the image of that beaten and bloodied young man, tied to a fence in a sort of crucifixion, echoes through the entire evening.

But we’re in for a surprise: instead of monsters, the quirks, foibles, and yes, humorous peccadillos of ordinary human beings begin to unfold. There are sinister aspects, to be sure. But mainly, just folks.

There are far too many great lines spoken by a cast that has been blessed with true inspiration for me to quote more than a few. But I can mention the names of the actors.

After many townspeople have been singing the praises of Laramie as a good place to live, Sergeant Hing (Jayson Warner Smith) casually says, “Now when the incident happened with that boy…” He could be talking about the weather. In fact, he does start talking about the weather, until a reporter interrupts him: “Well, who found the boy, who was out here anyway?” Mr. Smith is superb, playing also Philip Dubois, Father Schmit, and most memorably, Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father.

We also have the following, each in flawless performances (remember they’re playing several people):

Maggie Birgel as Aaron Kreifels, the cyclist who first found Matthew’s body, thinking at first it was a scarecrow.

Allan Edwards as Rev. Fred Phelps; also Doc O’Connor.

Michael Hanson as Aaron McKinney and others.

Asia Howard as the Jury Foreperson.

Curtis Lipsey as Detective Rob Debree.

Shaun MacLean as Jedidiah Schultz and Matt Galloway. Mr. MacLean’s is a breakout performance.

Stacy Melich as Officer Reggie Fluty—outstanding.

Mary Lynn Owen as Marge Murray, Reggie’s mother—funny and achingly human.

Maria Rodriguez-Sager as the Minister’s wife; she brings a wonderful authenticity to all her characters.

My very highest praise goes to Stephanie Busing for her set and especially her projections—brilliant. Kudos also to composer and sound designer Bennett Walton; and Ben Rawson’s lighting.

Theatrical Outfit has created a work of theatrical art that would shine on any stage in the nation. The company has caught something intangible that can’t really be described; it can only be experienced. More praise to director Clifton Guterman, who has expressed an intense personal involvement and commitment to this play. It shows. Please don’t miss “The Laramie Project.”

For tickets and information, visit theatricaloutfit.org.

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