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

compelling

text.

"The Laramie Project" imparts no subjective ideology or

opinions.

What it does do, with confidence and theatrical expertise, is

configure

the opinions and attitudes of a cross-section of ordinary people,

citizens of Laramie, population 26,687, into a riveting and

enlightening

event.

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

anti-gay

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

performance

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

company

that brought such powerful journalistic flair to "Gross Indecency:

The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde") traveled to Laramie on six

different

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

performances

from the arresting nature of the text. What matters is that none of

the actors betray or condescend to the diverse and idiosyncratic

natures

of their subjects. This is one of the play’s, as well as this

production’s,

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 —

although

not a part of the writing assignment, commands equal awe and

admiration

for their portrayals.

Designer Julia Hahn’s somber setting, with only a row

of wooden chairs, a few hooks for coats, makes a statement

appropriately

in tone with the openness and directness of the project wherein the

actors, often performing multiple roles, are either seated or

standing.

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

unsettled

by an encroaching world of arts and letters, have and have-nots,

outsiders

and strangers. Considering that the company has not attempted to

embellish

or distort the words of the actual people involved, there is a

consistent

honesty to the text. This honesty, which is occasionally flecked with

heart-breaking emotional content, allows us to see the people of

Laramie

in the light of their own perceptions about normalcy and decency.

There is even splashes of humor woven into the interviewees’

instinctive

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

The Laramie Project, New Jersey Repertory Company, 179

Broadway, Long Branch, 732-229-3166. $30. Through February 10.


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