Corrections or additions?
This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the January 30,
2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Review: ` The Laramie Project’
The outstanding documentary drama, "The Laramie
Project," is getting a first-rate, in-your-face production by
the New Jersey Repertory Theater. The play — a series of dramatic
interviews that arose from the horrifying events surrounding the fatal
1998 beating of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, in Laramie,
Wyoming — is recreated by eight excellent actors, each of whom
bring a realistic resonance and stirring emotional truth to the
"The Laramie Project" imparts no subjective ideology or
What it does do, with confidence and theatrical expertise, is
the opinions and attitudes of a cross-section of ordinary people,
citizens of Laramie, population 26,687, into a riveting and
The young man on a bicycle who discovers Shepard’s brutalized body;
the sheriff’s deputy who arrives on the scene and inadvertently comes
in contact the still-breathing, blood-soaked, H.I.V.-infected victim
who had been tied to a fence; a lesbian waitress; the bartender who
was the last person to see Shepard; and a gay university professor,
are just some of the people whose statements and responses to the
tragedy define a town and its ethos. Even the positions of the
preacher and protester, and a more conciliatory Roman Catholic priest,
are represented without reproach. Neither Shepard, or the theater
student whose parents could not bring themselves to see his
in "Angels in America," nor his killers, Russell A. Henderson
and Aaron J. McKinney (whose grandmother has her say here) are the
main focus. But, they remain foremost as symbols in this exploration
into the nature and nurturing of hate.
Members of Moises Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater Company (the acting
that brought such powerful journalistic flair to "Gross Indecency:
The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde") traveled to Laramie on six
occasions to interview over 200 people, the 60 of whom made it into
the text. These are now being played by eight fine actors, members
of the New Jersey Repertory Company.
It is hard to draw a line to separate the excellence of the
from the arresting nature of the text. What matters is that none of
the actors betray or condescend to the diverse and idiosyncratic
of their subjects. This is one of the play’s, as well as this
distinction, under the direction of Ken Wiesinger.
In the light of the original visits, in the midst of what had become
a media frenzy, Tectonic Theater members were able to extract from
the guardedly open interviewees what life was, is, and will possibly
never be the same again in this corner of America. The present company
— Dana Benningfield, Alberto Bonilla, Lea Eckert, Susan Kerner,
Duane Noch, Kendal Ridgeway, David Volin, and Eric Walton —
not a part of the writing assignment, commands equal awe and
for their portrayals.
Designer Julia Hahn’s somber setting, with only a row
of wooden chairs, a few hooks for coats, makes a statement
in tone with the openness and directness of the project wherein the
actors, often performing multiple roles, are either seated or
After an exposition in which the actors explain their mission and
intent, the story unfolds without pretension but with journalistic
persistence. We can deduce how the values of old-fashioned homogenous
simplicity in this once prime pasture and prairie town has been
by an encroaching world of arts and letters, have and have-nots,
and strangers. Considering that the company has not attempted to
or distort the words of the actual people involved, there is a
honesty to the text. This honesty, which is occasionally flecked with
heart-breaking emotional content, allows us to see the people of
in the light of their own perceptions about normalcy and decency.
There is even splashes of humor woven into the interviewees’
distrust of the Project, something not lost by either the original
writers or the actors at NJ Rep. If you have not ventured down to
see the work of this adventurous four year-old professional company,
this is a good time to start.
— Simon Saltzman
Broadway, Long Branch, 732-229-3166. $30. Through February 10.
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