There’s a stellar production of “Our Town” at the Purple Rose Theatre right now, running through May 29, but the Civic Theatre is doing an Our Town of another sort, called “The Laramie Project.”
In 1998, in Laramie, Wyoming, a gay university student kidnapped from a bar by a couple of homophobic punks. What they intended at the time wasn’t clear, perhaps even to them, but they robbed him, taunted him, tied him to a post and bludgeoned him, and left him to die. “The Laramie Project,” constructed from interviews and written records, and blended with enough music and poetry to show (somewhat self-consciously, to my mind) that it’s Art, was written by Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project in 2000 and first produced in Denver.
Ann Arbor Civic Theatre tackles it May 6-9 at the Arthur Miller Theatre on north campus, an unfortunately short run, but that’s the way of the Civic Theatre. The Laramie Project isn’t so much a play as re-enacted journalism and it’s spookily effective when produced by a civic theatre. By definition these aren’t professional actors up there: they are the very cops, judges, doctors, housewives, students, bartenders, and bus drivers that they are portraying, piecing together the gruesome end and aftermath of Matthew Shepard’s life.
“The Laramie Project” is also perfect for the stage at Arthur Miller. A huge thrust stage, so close to the audience that if you’re sitting in the front row you can’t cross your legs without bumping it, you feel like you’re part of the extended chorus. It turns out that Laramie, a conservative, swaggering, burg of cattle ranchers and those who serve them, with a tiny university plopped in the middle, is not as unlike Ann Arbor as you’d think: I recognized the complicated caste system immediately. The university eggheads, who might be big in their own academic world, kept smartly in check locally by the wealthy churchgoing citizens. Meanwhile the ragged hell-raising, unemployed rabble, who have been denied entrance to either world, howl at the gates.
“The Laramie Project” is a powerful reminder that there is poetry and truth in everyday speech. Like the elderly woman who is “against homosexuality.” She painfully concedes that Matthew Shepard didn’t deserve what he got, but still can’t wrap her mind around the concept of “hate crime.” “If you murder someone,” she says plaintively, “you hate them,” and while she won’t allow that this particular kind of hatred was right, she can’t see why it was wronger than any other kind of hate. These philosophical ruminations are interspersed with quiet, plainspoken narrations like the judge’s recital of the charges at the arraignment, and the neutral description of Matt Shepard’s body position and wounds by the sheriff’s deputy who found him. The play culminates in what must be the actual speech made by Matt Shepard’s father at the sentencing hearing of Aaron McKinney, one of the murderers, a speech nothing less than Shakespearean in its lyric profundity.
Each of the fourteen actors in this production plays many parts, and in the program, AACT either gave up on the job of trying to connect actors to roles, or the players take the spirit of ensemble theatre so seriously that they don’t want you to know. If you see the production and want to attach names to faces, click here for a cheat sheet you won’t get in your program.
Originally published on Everyone’s a Critic,, arborweb’s culture blog.