The cast of AstonRep Theatre Company’s ‘The Laramie Project.’ (Photo: Emily Schwartz)
It’s been an emotional week in Chicago theater debuts. AstonRep Theatre Company concludes its 2017-2018 season with an exercise in recent historical soul searching. The Laramie Project, a multi-voiced examination of small town change (or lack thereof) in the wake of an infamous hate crime, is mostly successful at delivering equal doses of grief and hope.
Written by Moises Kaufman and the Members of Tectonic Theater Project, the play debuted in 2000 as the country grappled with a new century and corrosive social stagnation. In 1998, gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was kidnapped, tied to a fence, savagely beaten, robbed and left for dead by two good ole’ boy meth heads. As the media descended upon the deceptively quiet, sleepy town of Laramie, sensationalized by the brutal crime and ensuing trials of the perpetrators, large cultural questions awaited answers.
As one of the characters in a cast of dozens wonders aloud, what are the moral implications of Western libertarian values? Does “live and let live” require the violent effacement of truth and diversity? What responsibility does religious dogma bear for “othering” LGBTQ communities at the pointed expense of the 6th Commandment? And finally, how does a society balance a need to move forward with an imperative to learn from an ugly past?
To explore these questions, Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project made a series of visits to Laramie to conduct an extensive series of interviews with residents of the shaken town. It is to the writers’ collective credit that a tapestry of perspectives is recorded and shared. There are those who empathize with Matthew and his grieving family but dodge behind scripture and small-town convention to victim shame Shepard, avoiding an actual reckoning with the unspeakable crime. The murderers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, are held up by this crowd as aberrations, deviants—like Shepard himself.
But there are other stories, stories of revelation and personal growth. The white, middle-aged male homicide detective who sees Matthew’s broken body, consoles his devastated parents and decides that homophobia is as dangerous and out of place as a loaded canon. The Catholic priest who concludes that he doesn’t need a Bishop’s blessing or the Bible’s permission to organize a candlelight vigil or publicly condemn the student’s killers. The cautious lesbian academic who becomes more doggedly determined to live her truth, even at the potential risk of her personal safety.
The voices, vignettes and names onstage rotate frequently, embodied by a chameleon-like cast of 12 talented performers. Directed with quick and even pacing by AstonRep Theatre Company Associate Artistic Director Derek Bertelsen, the actors and actresses are diversified by age, gender and ethnicity, a verbal and visual reinforcement of Laramie’s diverse residential interpretations of Shepherd’s grisly murder.
Rob Frankel is a particular standout. His Act II delivery of a courtroom statement written and read by grieving father Dennis Shepard is a quietly devastating showstopper. Muffled tears (including mine) could be heard throughout the monologue.
Yet for all its undeniable importance, this production of The Laramie Project is as imperfect as the titular town itself. Musical interludes played and sung by the cast that appear to have no more than a regional connection to Matthew Shepard. Do we know if the student was a fan of John Denver or country music? Without that information, mournful interpretations of standards such as “Country Road” and “Rocky Mountain High” feel forced, if not altogether disingenuous.
I also wonder if the source material is a bit too ambivalent about its mission. It’s true that the script is nearly 20 years old, and it could be inferred that the writers traded first-person access for “both siderism” overcompensation. Murderers Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson are not the only residents of Laramie who are unequivocally ignorant and hateful. At times, the drive to cut certain characters folksy slack left me feeling queasy.
These quibbles aside, AstonRep Theatre Company’s season-ending offering confirms a lasting and heartening silver living woven from Matthew Shepard’s tragic murder. The young man has not been forgotten. His death, in a post-Obergefell vs. Hodges American society imperfectly striving for inclusivity, has not been in vain.
The Laramie Project
6157 N Clark, Chicago, IL
Through July 8
Becky Sarwate is an award-winning journalist, theater critic, blogger, and author of Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team (Eckhartz Press). She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob and their cats, Wendy and Lisa. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.