A well-cast and convincing docudrama directed by Amy Poe is giving audiences a lot to talk about, opening a few minds, and lending high school students with fluid gender identities a degree of comfort.
The story is about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, an openly gay college student, and the effect it had on the town of Laramie, Wyoming. In addition to the flurry of media interest, it touched off an anti-hate crime movement in the LGBTQ community that resulted in The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, signed into law in 2009.
New York playwright/director Moises Kaufman was so moved by the story that within a month of the murder, he took his Tectonic Theater Project to Laramie to interview the townspeople. The resulting play is verbatim from recorded transcripts and exemplifies the messy effectiveness of the American system of government. In Poe’s directional hands it also showcases the range of American character, running all the way from depraved (whether drug or hate-induced is the subject of a review by John Stoltenberg) to decent, midwestern values.
Poe, a graduate of the University of Virginia and a direct descendant of Edgar Allen Poe, cast at least 75 students, a full one-third of whom have never acted before. With the help of Assistant Director Zoe Le Menestrel, they delivered a series of vignettes that told the story without resorting to salacious detail or depictions of violence, though they advise that children under 13 should be accompanied by an adult. The play is produced with the support of the McLean High School administration.
The result is as if the McLean Theatre Company held up a mirror to society and we, the audience, get to sit back and consider ourselves–our priests and preachers, our protestors, our ranchers, our media moguls, our theater people, and our bartenders.
Junior Thomas Kelty depicted bartender Matt Galloway, one of the last people to see Shepard alive, with a perfect mix of listening skills and comedic timing in the delivery of his lines and gestures. He was exceptional when he told his interviewers how he had to “funnel” his responses to the jury even though it was the lawyer asking him the questions. I hope he sticks with acting because he is a great storyteller. (Full disclosure: though I don’t know many of the actors, my son goes to this school and works on sets).
Set Head Tristan Walia, a freshman, with the help of Joe Miller and other seniors, has created a multi-tiered, Wyoming rock-faced world that provides no less than nine acting spots where the documentarians interview a panoply of townspeople in quick succession. Lights by sophomore Jared Jacknow picked them out in a dance of technical storytelling that really kept things moving. Above the rocks are giant white letters spelling out LARAMIE. It looked for all the world like the Hollywood Hills, and the big black road cases emblazoned with media insignias by Props Head Havi Carillo-Klein, a freshman, serve both to show how the media descended on the town and to provide a surface on which the Tectonic Theater Project members (Marielle Burt, Benjamin Johnson, Julia Kaufmann, Emily Lachow, Jack Posey [as Moises Kaufman], Max Spiel, and DJ Valdez) could conduct their interviews.
Helping to tell the story were projections by seniors Isabel Zapata and Kate Callahan, which included not only scene titles and a montage of contemporaneous news clips, but projections of the hospital CEO, played by freshman Jessie Seppi.
Although there are too many actors to single each one out, some made an impression on opening night.
Senior Matt Lucero captures the sloppily garrulous nature of Doc O’Connor, the cabbie who drove Shepard to the bar, and the audience loves him.
Sophomore Avery Madow poignantly portrays a University of Wyoming student whose parents had gone to every hockey game but wouldn’t go to his audition for a theater scholarship.
Senior Lily Lord captures the fait accompli attitude of his University of Wyoming drama professor who hosts a party for the Tectonic Theater Project members.
Senior Sam Miller portrayed University Administrator Zackie Salmon with an air of intelligence appropriate to the part.
Senior Leo Grandinetti effectively depicts a soul-searching Aaron Kreifels, who was mountain biking when he found Shepard barely alive by a fence on the prairie.
Sophomore Brittany Regas is down-to-earth as the policewoman who was the first responder to the scene.
Junior Christophe Jelinski is excellent as Shepard’s Dad and doubles as his academic advisor, acting with a natural flair and well-timed delivery in both parts.
Freshman Henry Stockton convincingly portrayed the father of one of the perpetrators in addition to other roles, while his brother, Will, a senior, nailed the lawyer and the doctor.
The perpetrators are excellently depicted by junior Ray Clardy and senior Faris Assaadi. Clardy somehow makes his eyes burn hauntingly, even when they are in the shadows. He also doubles as a ranch hand. (Costumes, including his dirty cowboy clothes and an orange jail jumpsuit, are by sophomore Jess Scarano and junior Gillian Wright, who found some spot-on 1990s western styles.)
Senior Faris Assaadi enacts the main perpetrator, Aaron McKinney, with a truculent air, and doubles as a rancher and also as the well-spoken Unitarian Minister, looking the part for each role.
Senior Joe Miller is equally convincing as a police detective, rancher and punk rocker. He’s just the real thing.
Senior Adam Benmhend was an effective in the difficult role of Reverend Fred Phelps, the Baptist minister who led the protesters.
Sophomore Jamie Wertz simply inhabits her role as a counter-demonstrator who uses angel wings to muffle their protests, as does Senior Emma Gold as a slightly neurotic college professor.
Senior Santiago Alfonso-Mesa is compassionate as a teacher of one of the perpetrators who will not abandon the family because of his personal religious values.
Junior Helena Doms makes an imperious judge, and sophomore Molly O’Hare and Elizabeth Kadeli are convincing in their depiction of a couple of Aaron’s friends.
Of these many voices, one of the freshest is that of Junior Yasmin Dambo as Zubaida Ula, a townsperson of Bangladeshi descent who just can’t believe what is going on, and expresses it beautifully.
The reporters (Haley Rose, Tori Garcia, Carmen Beadie, Abby Huston, Rachel Jaffe, Syona Ayyankeril), give a glimpse into the national psyche. Says one: “It is what happens in our schools on a daily basis.” And don’t we know it. As a result of this show, the high school has opened two gender-neutral bathrooms previously reserved for teachers only, Poe said.
“We’re changing lives,” said one of the hair and makeup heads, senior Sydney Studds. Led by Senior Camille Calderon, the students are doing a lot of awareness activities during lunch and hosting information booths in the lobby at 6 p.m. on Saturday night.
If you go to this general-admission show, be sure to sit near the front because it is a truly immersive experience, especially when the churchgoers sing “Amazing Grace” from pews on either side.
Running Time: Two and a half hours, with two 10-minute intermissions.