Review: 'The Laramie Project'

The Palo Alto Players mark the 20th anniversary of a hate crime that shocked the nation
After the brutal 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, reporters from around the country descended on Laramie, Wyoming.

Now in their 88th season, Palo Alto Players' newest production is a thoughtful and tragic meditation on culpability, accountability and acceptance.

Based on the story of Matthew Shepard, "The Laramie Project" explores the well-publicized crime, as well as the aftereffects on a small Wyoming town. Written by Moisés Kaufman, the play centers on the playwright himself and his theater company as they visit the town of Laramie and interview townsfolk and other players in the tragedy, weaving together a complex and deeply heartfelt tale about hate and the loss of life. Before the play, the company's managing director, Elizabeth Santana, introduced the show and welcomed the audience to fill out index cards with acts of kindness.

"The Laramie Project" opens on a sparsely-decorated stage. A three-tiered platform holds a smattering of dining room chairs, and behind it a large triptych flashes images of Laramie. Quickly all eight actors are on the stage, and they go about explaining the story that has entrapped a small rural town in the ghost of memory and regret: On Oct. 6, 1998, a college student in the town of Laramie named Matthew Shepard went to a local bar to have a few drinks. There he was confronted, or met (eyewitness accounts differ) by two local men named Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, before they all left the bar together. The next day a cyclist found Shepard on the edge of a field, tied to a pole and beaten within an inch of his life.

Within another day, both of the accused had been arrested and Shepard was dead. As one character explains, if this was some random local rancher, it would have barely made the news. But Matthew Shepard was gay, and the brutality and vindictiveness of the murder, and above all questions about what had really happened brought an ensuing avalanche of reporters that changed the landscape of quiet Laramie as well as future hate crime laws for the state of Wyoming.

The play is incredibly detailed, with a lot of moving parts, but Palo Alto Players pull it off tremendously. Using a set of eight actors revolving through nearly 60 characters, the company finds a beautiful harmony in the excess, exploring and analyzing the motives, movements and memory of Laramie. All of the actors are on their game, especially with the quick transitions—sometimes instantaneous—between characters. Jeff Clarke plays as both forthright and sincere through all of his characters. So does Kelly Hudson, who plays lesbian professor and country bumpkin with equal understated fervor. Judith Miller finds a balance between uproarious and neurotic. Brad Satterwhite moves with a elegant sincerity as both student and doctor. Dana Cordelia Morgan gives great background to characters in the town, as does Roneet Aliza Rahamim who has had an enrapturing quality to her performances. Special mention though goes to both Josiah Frampton and Todd Wright. Frampton moves with ease and believability between a young bartender and the local cab driver, coloring the play with some levity that only adds to the show's believability. Wright, too, moves between identities with ease, depicting both the town sheriff and a member of the visiting theater company with a haunted despondency that is hard to fake without overdoing it.

When investigating such a senseless crime and its aftereffects, there could easily be a tendency to dramatize. But the actors' performances, combined with the fluid pacing and simple set, gives shape and weight to the play's ultimate question: Who is responsible and who cleans up after evil?

It works mostly because of the actors, but also because of the moving and incredibly researched script by Kaufman, who centered the play in a metanarrative around him and his own theater company's experience visiting the town and interviewing people. This provides for rich exposition, analysis and ultimately pathos, with what's imparted through the play striking at both the heart and the gut.

Where many stories based on the real events fall into the drama too far, "The Laramie Project" feels real, with even the most banal lines sticking with you because of their disarming accuracy.

Ultimately, Palo Alto Player's production of "The Laramie Project" is a heartbreaking, but equally beautiful examination of how a singular crime can have a collective effect.

"The Laramie Project"
Jan 19th - Feb. 4th
Lucie Stern Theatre, Palo Alto

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