Immediately following the success of The Normal Heart comes another play that places the treatment of the gay community at centre stage. The 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, left the town reeling from the attack to which it had played unintentional host. The town’s residents found themselves placed under national scrutiny and it is this, as much as the murder of Matthew Shepard, that The Laramie Project investigates over its three acts.
The Laramie Project is not a simple piece of theatre and it is to director Nataliea Abramowitz’s credit that she ties together the strings of a play that is, by its very nature, somewhat idiosyncratic. Despite a rather slow start, it soon picked up momentum and by the final act, had grown into a moving piece of verbatim theatre.
The actors’ task is not small. Over the course of two hours, each performer plays a number of dynamic and diverse roles: bar tenders, policewomen, interviewers, ministers. Some actors rose to this challenge better than others and occasionally, the language seemed slightly stilted. One particularly touching moment, however, occurs between policewoman Reggie Fluty and her mother Marge. Fluty, played by Eveliina Kuitunen, found Shepard, discovering later there was a significant chance she had contracted HIV during her efforts to help him. Charlotte Kelly is particularly good as her protective, loving mother, conveying both her terror and fierce pride at her daughter’s bravery.
The staging was sparse and the actors’ costuming similarly minimalistic. The latter worked well; the addition of a jumper or a pair of glasses effectively symbolising a distinct change of character. The stage, however, may have been better utilised in the first act. The combination of a sparse setting and fairly limited movement by the actors made it less interesting to watch. This was rectified as the play progressed and the stripped-back setting was used with increasing imagination. This was particularly effective in the play’s most powerful scene where three cast members, holding hands and clothed in angel wings, circled an anti-gay protester, singing ‘Amazing Grace’. The Barron was used to its full potential and with it the entire play was elevated. It is here the message of peace, which the play attempts to communicate, is most clearly demonstrated.
It is unfortunate that a handful of small, silly mistakes stopped this show from being as impressive as it should have been. Though the slamming of a door backstage or an actor almost coming onstage at the wrong moment are small glitches, they are enough to distract the audience. This was particularly frustrating as such problems are so easily fixable and make the entire production more polished.
The Laramie Project deals with a complicated subject and it is to Abramowitz’s credit that she never once attempts to simplify this. Its focus is not solely on small town homophobia; its scope is much wider than this. Meaningful questions are also asked about the definition of a hate crime and whether the death penalty is ever morally justifiable. At its heart, however, The Laramie Project is about a community dealing with the aftermath of a tragedy. What is it for a town to become a symbol of violence, joining the likes of Waco, Texas or Birmingham, Alabama? To become ‘a noun, a definition, a sign’? Though it takes some time to find its feet, this production hits its stride as it goes on, becoming both articulate and profound.