Our Town, Our Time

"The Laramie Project' Presents a Community Questioning Itself in the Wake of A Violent Crime

Our Town, Our Time

There is the actor directly addressing the audience, setting up the play we're to see, leading us into its world. There are the chairs on the otherwise bare stage. There are the actors sitting in those chairs, portraying mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, the people who comprise a town. There is the funeral for one of them, taken too soon by death. There are the black umbrellas.

In the play The Laramie Project there are several touches that may put you in mind of Our Town, that theatrical portrait of an American town created in 1938 and performed almost constantly in theatres, schools, and community centers ever since. Those touches are deliberate, purposeful. They take advantage of the fact that hardly anyone gets through school without seeing or being in Thornton Wilder's play. It is so familiar, so deeply embedded in our national psyche, that it has become a touchstone for us, depicting American small-town life as we believe it to be. Evoking Grover's Corners in Laramie, Wyoming, connects the audience immediately to its character, makes it a close-knit town where everyone knows everyone else -- and everyone else's business; a home to decent folks, people of the land, people of faith, people who love their neighbors and where they live.

But this town is not that town. There is no glimpse of the afterlife, no conversation among the dead at the cemetery, no chance for the dead to revisit the living. There is no folksy Stage Manager with all the answers. This town belongs to a different era, a time when grotesque violence isn't limited to the battlefields of Europe, when brutality borne of hatred isn't restricted to America's metropolises. This is a time when, even in the small, settled communities of the heartland, a young man can be tied to a fence, viciously beaten, and left to die simply because he loves men rather than women.

The murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard in 1998 was so shocking in its savage nature and where it occurred that playwright Moisés Kaufman was drawn to visit Shepard's hometown to learn more about the crime and the circumstances that led to it. His idea was to travel there with some members of the Tectonic Theater Company (for which he is artistic director) and talk to as many residents as they could, gathering their thoughts and feelings about the young man they knew as Matt, about his murder and what followed it, and about their town.

They ended up making six visits over two years, and from 200 interviews these artists fashioned a theatrical mosaic, a portrait of Laramie through the recollections, observations, and opinions of some 60 individuals. The image might well be Grover's Corners at the end of the 20th century, its quintessential small-town stability and calm, its very identity, shattered by a violent eruption of prejudice. It is the picture of a community forced to question its culpability in the murder of one of its by one of its own. If it takes a village to raise a child, does it also take a village to kill one?

Right now that question, like the footfalls of a ghost, echoes hauntingly through the Zachary Scott Theatre Center. There, through the talents of an exceptional company of artists led by director Dave Steakley, Austin is transported to Laramie. Video by Colin Lowry puts us beneath that boundless Wyoming sky, so blue, as one person says, that you can't paint it, it's just blue. Allen Robertson's soundtrack sets that plaintive Rocky Mountain wind keening in our ears and, with a few artful plucks of a guitar's strings, evokes the lonesome grandeur of the Western wilderness. With wooden planks and sturdy chairs, set designer Michael Raiford takes us into the rustic bar where Matt Shepard met his killers and with posts and wire creates the fence where his life ebbed slowly away. With broad flat accents, the actors place us among the people of that region, recounting this difficult story.

We are there, listening to them: to the young man who happened upon Shepard's all but lifeless body, the shock and helplessness in him movingly conveyed by Martin Burke; to the policewoman who reached Shepard first and fought to give him aid despite the danger to herself, the selflessness and determination in Sarah Richardson's performance revealing the soul of a hero; to the Catholic priest who set aside church protocol to provide spiritual support for Matthew and the community, his moral compass set firmly, righteously, by Dirk Van Allen; to the hospital director reluctantly thrust into the media glare when the world takes an interest in Matthew Shepard and who breaks down before the cameras relating the news of Matt's death, his conscience and compassion shining forth in Jaston Williams' soft voice and caring eyes. In a touching and sublimely theatrical moment, this honorable man steps onto a platform covered with grass on which rain is falling and stands, face and palms upturned, soaking in tears from heaven.

The story seizes your heart, both piercing it and lifting it up. Such ignorance and stupid, ugly hatred spawning so much suffering. And yet, as we all know so keenly in the shadow of September 11, great good can arise from atrocious evil. We see Fred Phelps parading outside the Laramie courthouse, proclaiming God hates fags (this vile bigotry spewed by Jaston Williams with unsettling conviction), but we also see Matt's friend Romaine, embodied radiantly by Jenny Larson, leading an "Angel Action" in which she and others dress in white robes with huge wings to shield the Shepard family from Phelps' bile. We see Matt's killer -- Robert Newell, slack-shouldered and dull-witted -- showing no grasp of the magnitude of his crime, but we also see Matthew Shepard's father -- Dirk Van Allen, grief-stricken and angry, yet resolved to be merciful -- granting his son's murderer life.

The actors invest themselves so fully in these residents of Laramie that their humanity is never in doubt. Whether it's Newell's gregarious bartender, recalling the night of the murder with appealingly goofy fervor, or Meredith McCall's emergency room doctor who treated Shepard and his murderer, achingly confessing her compassion for both as kids, or Janelle Buchanan's university theatre department chair, describing her decision to stage Angels in America in response to the murder with steely resolve, or any part, they rise to the considerable demands of the script, not only demonstrating their versatility as artists but forging a community onstage that reinforces the sense of community within the play. When only one actor speaks, the others turn to that person with active attention, and watching them watch each other, the bonds between them seem to coalesce into a whole, making them a single great heart beating on the stage.

That unity of spirit helps make The Laramie Project more than a moving document of a tragic murder. What begins with questions from New Yorkers about what happened gives way to questions from the townspeople themselves about what Matt's murder means. A friend of the killer wants to know: What the hell were you thinking? An old classmate wonders: Where did you learn to hate? The young man who discovered Matt's body asks: Why did God want me to find him? Matt's friend wonders: How could he have changed the world? One resident asks: What has come out of this that is concrete and lasting?

Listening to these questions as spoken by Austin actors, directed toward us, it becomes clear that the questions apply to us here, in our town. Austin may be thought progressive among the cities of Texas, but prejudices are deeply ingrained here, as traveling east across I-35 makes clear. Austin has been shaken by eruptions of violence before. Is it only a matter of time before one explodes from the other? Are the seeds of violence being cultivated under our feet? Can we keep them from taking root?

The Laramie Project would be noteworthy theatre and this a laudable presentation of it if it only retold Matthew Shepard's story in the compelling, heartfelt way that it does. But it has chosen to tell a town's story and given us the opportunity to see ourselves there. Like Our Town, it works as a mirror, reflecting the way we live at a certain moment in time, showing what we face as a community and must confront if we're to keep community meaningful.

At the end of the play, a limo driver -- brought to feisty life by Dirk Van Allen -- describes the view of Laramie from the spot where Matt Shepard was beaten; at night, he says, the distant lights of the town sparkle. As he describes it, the actors light candles and come into the audience, where candles have been set at each seat. Flames are passed from person to person, and the theatre blazes with hundreds of lighted candles. It's a lovely communal moment in which we become those twinkling lights. We are Laramie. It is our town.

But the significance of this act doesn't stop there. In giving the audience those candles, Steakley gives the audience a key role in the show: creating that final image of the twinkling lights of Laramie. It's a responsibility, one that belongs to everyone in the audience, that belongs to us as a community. When we lift the candles and accept the flame from an actor or the person seated beside us, we're accepting that responsibility, individually and collectively.

The principle applies to the issues of community raised throughout The Laramie Project. In any community, the responsibility for peace, justice, progress, belongs to every member of that community. It is possible to diminish hatred and violence in "our town," and Zach's production of The Laramie Project shows us how to begin: by accepting the light of someone next to us and passing it along to another. It's as simple and profound as that. end story

The Laramie Project runs through April 7 at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center, 1421 W. Riverside. Call 476-0541 for info.

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