Review: ‘The Laramie Project’ at the Kensington Arts Theatre

The Laramie Project by Moisés Kaufman and Members of the Tectonic Theater Project, and produced by Craig Pettinati and directed by John Nunemaker, opened at the Kensington Arts Theatre on Friday, February 5, 2016. The subject of this extremely moving drama is Matthew Shepard – the young man who was brutally killed in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998 and became one of the key rallying points for gay rights in this country.

“Moment: Journal Entries” From left to right: Shaquille Stuart, Stuart Rick, Zoe Bulitt, and Francisco Borja. Photo by Courtney James.

The structure of the play is non-traditional – as Kaufman and his fellow playwrights are realistically depicted as characters that go to Laramie to research the life of Shepard as well as the character of the town (actually six times). Various actors play the group from the Teutonic Theater Project who created the drama as well as the town’s people that they interview.

What they find is not what we expect. Laramie at that time was nothing more than a microcosm of small town America. There were many closeted gay men and women, who like Matthew, have been courageous enough to let others know about their sexual orientation. There are those like the young drama student whose upbringing keeps him from accepting the gay lifestyle, but who after performing in a production of Angels in America, and after the murder and its aftermath, has a change of heart. There are others who are so entrenched in their biblical interpretations that, although they think murder is wrong, also believe homosexuality is a damnable offence.

Finally, we hear from the mainstream of people who have varying degrees of acceptance and guilt from who had close friendships with Matthew – those who are libertarian and feel as long as you don’t bother me, you can do whatever you want. And finally to those who accept that there are some gay members of their community but who are like ostriches putting their heads in the sand – in order not to see the unfair treatment and some of the day-to-day cruelty they endure.

However, the play, which could have been maudlin and depressing, leaves us at the end with hope that there are good folks out there, even in Dick Cheney’s Wyoming, and that some of us can change our hearts. It also reminds us that with all the horror of Shepherd’s kidnapping and barbaric murder – there was no legislation passed in Wyoming to prosecute hate crimes or promote equality for gays.

Credit goes to Director John Nunemaker who not only did a superb job directing and casting the production, but draws the audience into the action. According to his notes, they not only rehearsed the play but did research, had discussions, and met with Susan Burke from The Matthew Shepard Foundation, who was a reporter at the time in Wyoming.  Nunemaker made the decision to add more actors to the cast to fill the many roles of the townspeople, the member of the TTP – the reporters who flooded the town almost from the time Shepard was found tied to a fence barely breathing – until the end of the trial of the killers, and of course, the killers, the jury, and judges.

“Moment: The Fireside” From left to right: Sitting – Lena Winter, Standing: Bob Harbaum, Brianne Taylor, Stuart Rick, and Shaquille Stuart. Photo by Courtney James.

Set Designer Joel Richon, Lighting Designer and Special Effects/Multimedia, nd Sound Designer, Gabriel Macedo, use black screens which envelop the audience as well as projections on the back wall to create Laramie, the night sky, snow. and my favorite, the media blitz that suddenly appeared, first in the local area and then exploding to become an international story on the news. The most powerful piece of scenery, however, is the fence on stage which replicates the one where they found Matthew tied up and dying.

Costumes by Courtney James and Ashley Thweatt are as simple as a jacket or hat, but help us follow the actors’ characters as they jump from role to role.

The cast is a perfect ensemble, and no one is identified by character in the program. They all do a spectacular job as they make their difficult transitions. I was especially moved by Shaquille Stewart as the drama student in transition, the local bartender and the killer McKinney, Zoe Bulitt as the gay professor, Clancy Yavanovich as one of Shepard’s town friends, Bob Harbaum as the sheriff and gay-bashing minister, Lena Winter and Susan S. Porter as the officer who is first on the scene and deals with the possibility of having contracted HIV from Matthew’s blood and her worried mom, and Stuart Rick as the compassionate doctor and long time closeted gay observer in the town. Kudos to other ensemble members Taylor Bono, Francisco Borja, Lynnette Franklin, Natalie McManus, Brianne Taylor, and Elizabeth Weiss for their excellent performances. This is a dream-cast.

Kensington Arts Theatre’s powerful production of The Laramie Project is a ‘must see.’ It will move your soul and hopefully will open your mind.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.

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The Laramie Project plays from February 5-20, 2016 at Kensington Arts Theatre – performing at The Kensington Town Hall –  3710 Mitchell Street, in Kensington, MD. For tickets call the box office at (206) 888-6642, or purchase them online. 

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