Though we are never directly introduced to Matthew Shephard his presence is all over The Laramie Project. He is in the stooped shoulders of the residence hanging around a bar, he is present in their defensive reactions to questioning, their furtive glances as their unease with difference is aired to a group of New York theatre-makers. If the small (he was reported to be little more than 5’2), queer Shephard was little more than a parenthesis in the history of Laramie, Wyoming before, he became a significant chapter on the night of October 6th 1998, when he was beaten, tortured and left for dead by two men who may have been driven to commit the crimes due to his sexual orientation. Tragically six days later, he was dead.
Moisés Kaufman’s verbatim play is not exactly an easy watch. Over 2 ½ hours, its audience is made to pay witness to viewpoints and crime details which explore the darker elements of the human soul. In closed-minded, small Laramie, to be gay was to be different and to be different could get you hurt. Conservative Christians from the Westboro Baptist Church who campaign against ‘fags’ rub shoulders with disaffected young men who claim they are fine with people’s sexuality as long as they don’t have to encounter it. Its long, first half feels particularly tough, you come out at the interval needing not only a stiff drink but probably also a shower to rub the stench of bigotry off you.
Yet somewhere within this hope still resides. It’s in the students who attended the funeral of Shephard and formed circles around the picketing Westboro bigots wearing wings that made them resemble angels. It is there in Shephard’s Father who makes a final moving speech to a jury about not putting his son’s killer to death. Even in the bleakest of moments, light can breakthrough.
The graduating class of BOVTS handle the challenges the play poses well. Kaufman’s work is adapted from over 200 interviews that he and his company the Tectonic Theatre Company conducted in the City, condensed and moulded into dramatic shape. Almost inevitably, the characters are little more than snapshots, yet the overall characterisation is shaded enough not to fall into caricature. Dialect coach James Gitsham has done an admirable job in ensuring the Western American accents of Wyoming and the Bronx accents of the theatre crew are sharp and on point.
The text and Nancy Medina’s fluid, lively production ensure that a play without direct character interaction feels connected and well populated. The funeral scene is elegantly staged as candle after candle is snuffed out while the courtroom scenes take on the air of a thriller as a killer’s life is debated in the dock.
In a strong cast of 15 multi-rollers, there is particular stand out work from Isobel Coward as the first police presence on the crime scene who may have become infected with HIV as a result, Sebastian Orozco as a wisecracking taxi driver and Danial Radze who flicks in an instant from killer to father, movingly delivering a eulogy about his fallen son.
Paired in the same week as Her Naked Skin under an LGBT themed season, the work showcases that in the battle for equality, work still needs to be done. The memory of Shephard and others murdered for who they are resonate with as much force as Emily Davison sacrifice under the King’s horse. The battles continue.
The Laramie Project plays at the Weston Studio until the 29 February