Located just 47 miles away from Washington, DC in The Plains, Virginia, Dark Horse Theatre Company creates some of the best theater in the DC area. Director Natasha Parnian continues a streak of excellent plays with the regional premiere of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, the sequel to The Laramie Project. Much like The Laramie Project, the narrative unfolds through a series of recreated interview transcripts that were conducted by members of Tectonic Theatre Project, with citizens of Laramie, Wyoming. 10 years after their initial interviews, citizens were asked about the continued impact that the murder of Matthew Shepard has had on their lives. Staging this play in the round is a strong choice, executed well. Cast members are seated throughout the audience, which creates an even more immersive experience, particularly when the cast adds sound effects to key moments in scenes.
Each actor played multiple roles in a truly ensemble performance. In addition to the use of small props, light costume changes, or sometimes completely different mannerisms, narration by Cheryl Lane throughout the play is immensely useful for telling characters apart, as she announces the name of each character as they enter (or re-enter in later scenes). As the play is a series of interviews and transcripts, it could become difficult to keep track of the story. However, Celia Cooley (Moment Announcer, ensemble) helps to keep scenes connected; she helps to frame scenes by summarizing how scenes are tied together. Both Lane and Cooley speak clearly and with empathy. Their words and tone are integral to the mood of the evening.
Angie Mirae (Cowboy, University Official, ensemble), Cary Reese (Matt Mickelson, Governor Freudenthal), and Marcia Markey (Marge Murray, Grandma), may have fewer characters than some, but their impact on the play is huge. Mirae’s coldness as the cowboy immediately indicated to the audience that not everyone interviewed was polite or kind. Markey is incredibly sweet and comfortable as Marge Murray. Cary Reese brings a weighty exhaustion to Matt Mickelson – I wish I could see what he does when he treads the boards as Aaron and Russell (among other roles) on January 17 and 18.
Brandy Smith (Jim Osborne, ensemble) and Samantha Mitchell (Leigh Fondakowski, Jan Lundhurst) both have amazing presence onstage. Smith’s portrayal of Jim Osborne is disarming and laidback at times, but quickly jumps to fierce incredulity. Mitchell’s Leigh Fondakowski is very expressive vocally, with nuanced non-verbal reactions that resonate with how the audience feels.
Playing Mathew Shepard’s parents are Ken Gilfillan (Moisés Kaufman, Jeffrey Lockwood, John Dorst, Dennis Shepard, Glen Silber, Father Roger, Peterson) and Kimberly Kemp (Beth Loffreda, Judy Shepard, Rental Car Agent) Kemp is heartbreaking as Judy Shepard. Her feeling of loss is palpable. Gilfillan’s speech as Dennis Shepard is moving and as a pair, Kemp and Gilfillan do a phenomenal job portraying real parents who have gone through the worst thing imaginable. Gilfillan also shines as Father Roger, with a laugh that is both infectious and much needed; this is a dark play, and little bits of light ensure that the audience doesn’t get acclimatized.
Matt Thomas (Stephen Belber, Dave O’Malley, George, Childers) and Ricardo Padilla (Greg Pierotti, Rob Debree, Republican Man) have some of the best reactions to the worst occurrences. Thomas makes O’Malley’s sense of betrayal at the 20/20 interview feel like a punch to the gut. Padilla’s shock upon discovering that the fence where Matthew Shepard was murdered had been taken down is a memorably expressive moment.
Watching Nailah Hunter’s (Zackie Salmon, Romaine Patterson) anguish turn to rage as Zackie Salmon is an emotional peak of the play. Her Romaine Patterson is equally powerful and feels very real.
With a whopping 9 unique characters, Allison Turkel (Rebecca Hilliker, Reggie Fluty, Deb Thomsen, Mom, Nikki Elder, Student, 20/20 narrator, Susan Swap, Desk Mate) does the most character-hopping, often utilizing distinct gaits and posture to best drive the differences.
The two actors I found myself the most drawn to watching were Star Bobatoon (Cathy Connolly, Lucy Thompson, Jane) and Matthew Butcher (Jedadiah Schultz, Andy Paris, Jerry Parkinson, Russell Henderson, Aaron McKinney). Bobatoon’s Lucy Thompson as a devoted, proud, face-touching grandmother to a murderer is expertly done, and is juxtaposed superbly with her role as Cathy Connolly, played stridently and with great command. Butcher plays both of the convicted murderers of Matthew Shepard (Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney). The only commonality between the two characters is the costume. Butcher shows the dichotomy between the two perfectly.
Make sure you stick around after the play for a brief Q&A with the cast!
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with one 10-minute intermission.