Broken Heartland

Testimonies: Project company members play Wyoming natives in Moisés Kaufman's Laramie Project.Photo: Joan Marcus

After Moisés Kaufman’s clumsy and ostentatious Gross Indecency, about Oscar Wilde, my expectations for his new docudrama were pretty low. To my surprise, The Laramie Project is a terrific piece of theater, history, and life in the heartless heartlands. It concerns the horrific death of young Matthew Shepard at the hands of two very young Laramie gay-bashers, which filled the world with sorrow and indignation a couple of years ago. Kaufman and his company, Tectonic Theater Project, traveled six times to Laramie over a year and a half, conducted hundreds of interviews and workshops, and pieced together the story of this crime that could have occurred in many places but that coming from such a relatively conflict-free state as Wyoming resounded even more shatteringly.

I hope that you know the shameful and shocking story, but even if you have extensive knowledge, you will be held in rapt attention by this in-depth examination of just about every aspect of the background and foreground of the event, as seen and heard through the eyes and mouths of numerous witnesses, neighbors, indifferent or impassioned fellow citizens, media persons, family members, direct and indirect participants. There emerges a mosaic as moving and important as any you will see on the walls of the churches of the world.

In a little over two and a half hours (including two short breathers), we get to know every nook and cranny of Laramie before, during, and after the Shepard tragedy, and so much more besides: how smart or stupid, compassionate or cruel, noble or ignoble some very ordinary – as well as some extraordinary – people can be. And beyond that, how closely compounded and confused the ordinary and the extraordinary can be within a single person. All this in the characters’ own words and, as superbly enacted by eight actors in a multiplicity of roles, with their own gestures, facial expressions, intonations, pauses, tears, and laughter.

Yes, laughter too; for in the self-contradictory convolutions of human thought and action, the funny can, innocently or not, coexist with the most tragic. Accordingly, The Laramie Project has some dazzlingly humorous moments that relieve – but never cancel out – the dreadful injustice that was done here. Guilty of this murder is a very large portion of humanity, however far away as the crow – but not the mud – flies. For which of us, in one way or another, has not been a wolf – or, rather, much worse than this noble animal – to his fellow man?

Both the individual pieces and their assemblage here are nothing short of stunning, in both senses of the word. I name the eight good actors who, as researchers, collaborated with Kaufman and his assistant, Leigh Fondakowski: Stephen Belber, Amanda Gronich, Mercedes Herrero, John McAdams, Andy Paris (the only one who sometimes overacts a bit), Greg Pierotti, Barbara Pitts, and Kelli Simpkins, not forgetting Robert Brill (set), Moe Schell (costumes), Betsy Adams (lighting), and the highly evocative music of Peter Golub. Nowadays, when every piece of dreck receives standing ovations from foolish and self-important theatergoers, you should not miss a theatrical and human event that deserves standing up for, with applause or, better yet, silently, taking an important lesson profoundly to heart.

Broken Heartland