“You need to do your best to say it correctly.” That is the quote that comes to mind when formulating words to describe this evocative, moving piece of theatre that reaches out and touches my soul in a way that words simply cannot express. The idea that there is hope to be had in even the darkest of situations and that things will change; that concept which is so strongly tied into Ford’s Theatre’s The Laramie Project, surfacing at this moment of political upheaval in the nation’s capital, could not be more poignant and relevant to life as we know it.
Ford’s Theatre opened their production of The Laramie Project last night to coincide with the upcoming 15 year anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s passing, and they did so without a set, without their visual projections, without the familiarity of their home stage. Despite all of these factors rising against them the performance— viewed in its rawest form in a completely unfamiliar and very intimate space at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company— was a stunning success that provoked emotional responses from myself and the audience. Hope does prevail even in the darkest hour.
Directed by Matthew Gardiner The Laramie Project is a deeply dramatic and evocative work that was initially created by Moisés Kaufman and the Members of Tectonic Theater Project, revolving around the real life events surrounding the brutal kidnapping, torture and ultimately the death of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998. Gardiner created a vision to perform this production on the iconic Ford’s Theatre stage, but despite a last minute venue change and being stripped of nearly everything but their costumes and the text, Gardiner and his company of eight performers gave a stellar rendition of this story in its truest form: honest raw emotional existence for the audience to not only see but feel and experience right before their eyes.
Gardiner sets a pace for this show that initially felt too quick, the first act moves swiftly as the ‘members’ come into Laramie and build the back story, taking interviews and meeting the people. However this rapid pace creates an underlying frenetic energy that builds silently in the background, storing away emotions and images and concepts that are relevant to Matthew’s story and his existence. When the top of the second act begins that undercurrent of speed from the first act comes rushing forth in a sudden burst of emotions, the pacing suddenly slows and each moment of shock, upset, anger, compassion and overall feeling crashes onto the audience as if a dam has burst. The third act rolls into place in a similar fashion, never losing that emotional intensity while moving just quickly enough for each emotional moment to be felt and absorbed but never lingering too long.
Gardiner crafts palpable moments of pins and needles, chills, tears, even bursts of anger into the more fully charged emotional scenes with his strategic blocking and repetitive use of synchronization. There are moments in Act II, during the arraignment for example, where the cast moves as one and the harrowing feeling this creates is shocking to behold. Gardiner creates the sense of a metastory as other cast members when not a part of the scene are never far away from what is unfolding, always watching; nearly as intently as those in the audience. It is a awe-inspiring comparison to watch these performers absorbing the same story that you are witnessing, seeing them listening, watching them acknowledge as if they too are hearing and understanding these things for the first time.
The play itself encompasses such a broad spectrum of not only the focal point of the story – but of how people and communities exist in every day life. Gardiner does the show a great justice by honing in on these little devices that are built into the text and allowing them to showcase varying viewpoints on not just the incident but on values and senses of being and existence inside a small town. The other aspect of the production that Gardiner has a mastery on is balancing out the levity. Despite the show’s heavy emotional gravity and the severe solemnity that accompanies it, there are little bursts of humor sprinkled strategically throughout and he really allows those moments a full breath of existence so that the audience can feel them.
Given that the actors were prepared to deliver their performances on the enormous stage of Ford’s Theatre they do a sensational job of connecting individually with a much closer, intimate audience. Their speeches not only as company members but as the people of Laramie become so tightly focused that you can feel the emotions radiating off them in waves. They make eye contact directly and shift their focus from person to person, letting the text relate to the audience as individuals; having the opportunity to experience their passion so closely is truly phenomenal.
As an ensemble they work extremely well together; a piece this emotionally weighted is no small feat and they surpass every emotional hurdle with extreme success. Craig Wallace’s performances are worthy of particular praise because he grounds a great deal of the humor in his Doc O’Conner character. Those little moments, however brief, where he inspires a laugh are truly welcomed amid the emotional turmoil that leaves the audience utterly bereft. Wallace is a fierce presence upon the stage regardless of which character he’s taking on, but particularly as the medical director of the hospital where Matthew died; the emotional depth that he delivers in those moments is truly heart-breaking.
Some of the most intense moments are the juxtapositions created by the multiple roles played by a single actor. The one that immediately comes to mind is Mitchell Hébert’s portrayal first of Fred Phelps and then later as Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father. Hébert has a unique approach to delivering Dennis’s statement during the McKinney trial; a very emotionally distraught portion of text that elicited many tears from the audience.He reads the statement quietly, a simple but deliberate pacing with very little emotion in his voice. And at first I questioned how detached the performer seemed when delivering this absolutely devastating monologue, but the moment his voice cracked for just that single line near the end of it, it occurred to me that his approach here was designed to let the full gravity and meaning of this words wash over the audience; and seeing it delivered in such a way was simply too moving for words. Hébert gives other stunning portrayals throughout the production and is a gifted and compelling actor.
Each of the performers makes this story a reality for the audience – be it with Holly Twyford’s highly accented character as Reggie Fluty—the single most stylized performance in the show—or Kimberly Gilbert’s stunning rendition of the ‘Action Angels’ monologue that really inspires a new breed of hope on the horizon. Chris Stezin and Paul Scanlan also have truly amazing moments, albeit a bit more lighthearted when it comes to their quirkier characters, but there is not a moment in the production where any one person feels as if they are anything less than completely present, focused, and emotionally receptive.
Ford’s Theatre’s The Laramie Project is so moving, raw, honest, emotionally compelling and honed with such emotional integrity and raw honesty. I am hoping that their mainstage will reopen soon so everyone will be able to see this masterpiece.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, with two intermissions.
The Laramie Project plays through October 27, 2013 at Ford’s Theatre— 511 10th Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 347-4833 or purchase them online. Because of the government shutdown, Ford’s Theatre is closed. We will update our readers when performances will resume.