Cicely Warren with ensemble. Photo: Mitchell Martin
The Laramie Project
By Moisés Kaufman and the members of Tectonic Theater Project
Directed by Mitchell Martin
Review by Ben Gierhart
Entire contents copyright © 2018 by Ben Gierhart. All rights reserved.
I think I speak for the majority of liberal America when I say that the times we live in are exhausting. More than that, they are disheartening in a way that embitters us to the victories and further dampens the tragedies of our nation’s storied past. It is difficult to believe that there will ever be a time when compassion, honesty, and simple kindness will become ubiquitous virtues again. One blip in this bleak outlook, however, is the promise of youth, the eternal hope that the next generation will finally get it right. Emma Gonzalez and the other survivors of the Parkdale shooting are testaments to that fact, and this cast of high school students’ presenting The Laramie Project ties into that same spirit.
The death – after a brutal beating and subsequent torture and exposure – of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming transpired 20 years ago as of this production’s opening night, and the forces of hatred that provoked that attack seem as powerful as ever. The original purpose of this play was to deeply examine those forces and show humanity not only its capacity for evil but remind it of its capacity for mercy as well. Fortunately, this production – for the most part – steers clear of committing more political grandstanding than is strictly necessary. It’s a fine line to walk, and Mitchell Martin wisely sticks with the facts and emotions behind the story in his direction, save for a few moments that I’ll discuss in a bit.
As a devised play, the narrative flows between the perspectives of Moisés Kaufman, the various members of Tectonic Theater Project sent to glean information and the people those members interviewed. There are also a few dramatizations of legal proceedings and recreations of real reportage on the case as well.
Each member of the young cast displays talent and discipline beyond their years in playing roles with so much need for accuracy in line delivery and emotional depth, not to mention so many of them. Throughout the evening, I found that I wished that a few of them would slow down just a hair as there were some moments of tripping over the tongue that I attributed to opening night jitters. If anything, however, it endeared me to the earnestness with which these actors were committed to their work.
Zoë Peterson, William Ngong, Max Jablow, Lilly Rich, and Nicole Shariat all stood out in a cast of fine actors giving fine performances, the last of whom delivered what is perhaps the most difficult moment in the show with tremendous calm and vocal presence. It’s a powerful moment in the real events of the case, and Ms. Shariat’s absolute control and understatement at that moment are really something to behold. You’ll know it when you see and hear it.
Mitchell Martin certainly directed this cast of young people well, and his staging is appropriately minimal while maintaining a sense of setting well. He chose to project news reports from more modern tragedies in the same vein as that of Matthew Shepard, and it is in these moments that I remain conflicted.
On the one hand, it is essential to look at this event historically – it happened 20 years ago after all. As a historical event, it is important to see how we might repeat it, to examine how we may already be doing so. The reason that I remain skeptical, however, is that I’m not sure how many people who see this production need to be reminded of the injustices happening in our world. For me, the comparisons between the hatred behind the shooting at Pulse nightclub and that of the murder of Matthew Shepard was upsetting. It made me angry because it reminded me that the forces of good and evil are at a seemingly endless tug-of-war, and right now, it seems like good is in the mud. That feeling does illicit some desire for me to fight and pull the rope harder. It seems that this may be Martin’s intention, and if so, his direction is impressively manipulative in the best way.
Either way, this production of The Laramie Project labors to – in the words of one person interviewed for the show – “say it right, say it correct.” And that it most certainly does. If you wish to spend an evening dealing with some upsetting truths about the nature of hatred in America but also be reminded of our choice in choosing impossible kindness in the face of that hatred, I cannot recommend this production enough.
The Laramie Project
October 11-13, 18-20 @ 7:30pm
October 13 & 20 @ 2:00pm
Nancy Niles Sexton Stage
Commonwealth Theatre Center
1123 Payne Street
Louisville, KY 40204
Ben Gierhart is a local actor, playwright, and director who has worked with several companies in town including The Bard’s Town, Pandora Productions, Savage Rose, and Centerstage. Ben serves on the board and in the acting ensemble for The Bard’s Town Theatre, and he is also a founding member of the Derby City Playwrights, a collective dedicated to creating new and exciting plays in Louisville.