Laramie Project was moving, challenging

Erin Dakas ’13

A fence lit in soft, rose-tinted light provided the only backdrop for Student Experimental Theater’s production of The Laramie Project, directed by Caitlyn Fuoco, ‘13, in Arter’s Little Theater. Despite this apparent softness, the play was anything but rosy in tone.

In October 1998, Matthew Shepard, a young university student, was found tied to a fence and left to die in a desolate prairie outside of Laramie, Wyo. The victim of a hate crime, Shepard was tortured and robbed on the sole grounds that he was gay.

When Shepard died in the hospital days later, the media stormed Laramie, transforming the quiet town into a hub for protests, vigils, and questions.

For those left behind in Shepard’s wake, the questions consumed them: questions of faith, of sexuality, of how such great hate could fester in such a small town.

The Laramie Project sprung from these questions. It is a play crafted from interviews with  the townspeople left behind to piece together some semblance of an answer, although in truth, there is none.

For this reason alone, Laramie was a challenging performance at certain junctures.

But watching the interviewed locals be fleshed-out on stage, hearing their words, kindled an intensity that weighed heavily on audience and cast alike.

Despite the fact that the play began slowly, initially detailing the peripheries of Laramie’s microcosmic world and tightly-knit social spheres with little mention of the incident at hand, the rhythm quickly picked up, but never spun out of control.

The entirety of the production was punctuated with high octave scenes followed by slower, more contemplative moments, all scattered across the stage like flashbulb memories.

The cast who undertook this journey portrayed the real people whose lives were consumed by this event.

As countless interviews were recorded and transcribed into this play, the nine person cast had to recreate roughly three times the amount of characters, a daunting feat.

Yet the actors eased from one persona, one set of mannerisms, stage presence and dialect rather fluidly into the next, ranging from a cantankerous elderly limo driver, to stricken friends of Shepard, to the seemingly remorseless perpetrators.

The minimal setting worked well with these quick changes, allowing the scene to transition from the inside of a comfortable, local bar to the emptiness of the prairie fluidly and with minimal interruption.

All extremes were explored, all corners of Laramie reached in some capacity.

Were there stumbles? Opening-night jitters? Most certainly, but these slips were minute in comparison to the heart wrenching moments where the performances and line deliveries were enough to render audience members to tears.

It was near the very end that all of the built up tension, emotion and the pain, finally came to a culmination.

The stage became the courtroom at the trial of Aaron McKinney, one of Shepard’s murderers. It was there that an actor stood as Shepard’s grieved father to deliver the most twistingly beautiful speech.

It was a final message to McKinney and an opportunity for forgiveness, as well as a window into the pain of a father who had lost his son, who he called his hero.

At times, it was hard to believe that this story was real. But as the cast all stood together at the fence in dimming, rosy-light, a Wyoming sunset for the closing scene, the message was clear: this did happen, still happens, and cannot be forgotten.