Lynch Burg

Those of us who haven't endured small-town life or anyone who believes that hate crimes aren't high on the list of human failings will want to see The Laramie Project, an invigorating examination of hatred and backward thinking. And fans of first-rate theater won't want to miss what Stray Cat Theatre has done with Moisés Kaufman's take on the brutal 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, the gay college senior who was found tied to a fence outside Laramie, Wyoming, after being savagely beaten and left to die.

Kaufman's approach was novel: He had members of his acting troupe, the Tectonic Theater Project, visit Laramie several times during the year after Shepard's death to interview each of the people -- law officers, shopkeepers, friends of the victim and his murderers -- they'd be portraying onstage. (Each actor plays at least a half-dozen characters.) Kaufman fashioned a script from these interviews and various media reports that focuses on the arrest, trial and sentencing of the killers and on the response from townspeople to hate crimes and homosexuality.

The Laramie Project is a docudrama about an infamous murder, but it's mostly about the people of Laramie, population 26,687, who come to life on the stage to discuss the brutal hate crime that put their town on the map. We meet the usual hayseeds and fire-and-brimstone preachers of all denominations, but we also meet with revelations about what's behind the range of responses to hate crimes.

The actors start out playing actors who've been playing journalist, and their story becomes the story of Shepard's murder, of how he was tied to a fence post by his killers, beaten and tortured and left to die. The troupe's half-dozen trips to Laramie provide insights into the homely ranch-and-railroad town's atmosphere; reveal the divisions between the working class and university students; and depict the sometimes chillingly casual descriptions of Shepard's killers by barflies and trashy chicks who knew them.

There's not much in the way of memorable dialogue, and I found myself wanting the play to take a firmer stand against the horrible thugs who murdered Shepard and are now serving life sentences. But the script's shortcomings are remedied, in this production at least, by superb acting. The emotional calisthenics of this cast is always captivating, and, with few exceptions, they nail each of the 60 characters they introduce. There wasn't a performance by any of the players that wasn't at least engaging, and several were shockingly real.

From the moment Anne Marie Falvey uttered her first line, I was mesmerized by her, and spent the rest of the performance wondering why her magnificent voice (which speaks for, among others, a lesbian professor and a Muslim student who's disturbed that anyone would want to make a play about Shepard's murder) and tremendous presence don't take the stage more often. Falvey owns the play's most unsettling moment, when she portrays both a spiteful preacher ("I hope, before Matthew Shepard slipped into a coma, he had time to reflect on his lifestyle!") and the earnest young woman interviewing him. The dour, hate-filled face of Falvey's Reverend melts so quickly into the heartbroken visage of the shocked girl reporter, it's as if there were two actors present onstage.

Joe Kremer leads the male cast with vivid portrayals of an impatient police sergeant and a nerdy Catholic priest; also of note is Jessica Flowers' portrayal of Reggie Fluty, the policewoman who untied Shepard from the fence and attempted to revive him, and Luke Krueger's booming interpretation of hate-filled Reverend Fred Phelps.

Global media coverage made Shepard into a martyr and made his story into an unhappy reminder that hate crimes are still a popular pastime in many parts of the world. The Laramie Project reveals the lengths to which we'll go to deny how prevalent hatred is in our culture. As one of Falvey's characters puts it, "I keep hearing that Laramie isn't the kind of town where this sort of thing' happens. So why did it happen here?"

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela