Last Thursday I had the opportunity to see a college production of The Laramie Project, a play from 2000 by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theatre Project. It draws inspiration from the life and death of gay University of Wyoming student, Matthew Shepard. For those who don’t know, Matthew was attacked, beaten and tortured on October 7th 1998, and was pronounced dead on October 12th. His two attackers were both sentenced to life imprisonment.
Even just knowing the circumstances of the play, which is all I knew, I was sure that it was going to be an emotional rollercoaster, especially for me, I’ll cry at anything. The play is split into three 40 minute acts, coming out at just over two hours. Eight actors (more in the case of this particular production) play inhabitants of the town of Laramie, re-enacting interviews conducted by the Tectonic Theatre Project as well as their own commentary. We hear from friends and family of both Matthew and the murderers Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, as well as local townsfolk who were all shocked by the murder.
Tectonic Theatre used these interviews to create a brutally honest description of Laramie and its residents. From the person who found Matthew’s beaten body 18 hours after the attack, to the first officer on the scene, to the barman who was the last person to see Matthew alive, each character in the production provides another page to the story of Matthew Shepard. Through the voices of others, the audience builds up an idea of what ‘Matt’ was like. His happy personality and willingness to talk to anyone shine. Half way through his best friend’s interview about how he would always sit on the end table so he could speak to her whilst she worked at the café, it kind of hits you that this guy was real, perfectly perfectly real. Act One built up this portrait of Matthew, talking about his life more than his death. It wasn’t until Act Two, which was the most powerful act for me, that Matthew’s death turned the audience silent.
At time of writing it has been around 24 hours since I actually saw the play, and there is still one character that I can’t get out of my head. The first officer on the scene, Reggie Fluty, is one of the interviewees I cannot forget. I don’t know whether this was because she was played particularly well, or the interview was just that powerful. Her description of what she saw, at the fence that Matthew was tied to, was heart breaking, leaving me with a sense of disgust and sadness. The play doesn’t leave anything out. The warning prior to entering the theatre confirms this. Looking round I could tell the rest of the audience were thinking exactly the same. I won’t give anything away, but if you do decide to research more into what happened, have tissues at the ready.
After the emotional journey that was Act Two, Act Three brought along the funeral and the trial of both McKinney and Henderson. At the start of the act, an actual interview with Fred Phelps, leader of the Westboro Baptist Church can be heard as they picketed at Matthew’s funeral. This was juxtaposed on stage with the ‘Angels of Peace’, a group of people wearing Angel wings that blocked out the protesters from view. At this point my faith in humanity was hanging by the balance. However, after the scene with the angels it was restored, thankfully. The trial of McKinney in particular was moving. Towards the end of the final act, a monologue of Matthew’s father, a direct quote, send shivers down my spine as he asked for McKinney to be spared the death penalty, so that every day he knows and remembers what he has done.
Overall, if anyone has the chance to see The Laramie Project it is highly recommended. The brutal honesty of the play hits home and the heartfelt portrayal of the residents of Laramie, after the ruthless murder of Matthew Shepard, will strike a chord with even the stone hearted.