Lyric Arts Main Street Stage, in Anoka, is commemorating the 15th anniversary of the 1998 gay bashing and murder of 21-year old Matthew Shepard, in Laramie, Wyoming, with a production of Moisés Kaufman’s play “The Laramie Project.”
Chronicling the six visits made by members of the Tectonic Theater Project of New York to Laramie after the attack, the script is made up of interviews with residents and journal entries from members of the theater company.
Given the recent advances in gay rights, I worried the play might feel dated. But the hate mail received by Lyric Arts and the angry letters to the editor in the Anoka County Union remind that these issues are all too contemporary.
Lyric Arts is considered a “community” theatre, but this is an exceedingly professional production. It is a powerful story told in a simple, efficient and effective manner.
Docudrama like this can often be dry and didactic, but the production creates an increasing sense of tragedy, as the details of the attack overwhelmed the community. The theatre company members act as the audience’s entry into this world.
Director Robert Neu molds his cast of 12, each playing three or more roles, into a strong ensemble. Simple costume pieces, by Samantha Kuhn Steneart, were used and the script reintroduced characters each time they appeared. But the actors were so successful in physically and vocally differentiated their characters that these became unnecessary.
The play is essentially a series of monologues. But Neu used Brian J. Proball’s simple set, chairs on a rough-wood raked platform, to create a fast-moving portrait of an entire community that did not stint on the horror of the events.
The production did not stint on the comedy either. These were quirky characters and Neu found the humor in their humanity, from the overeager young college student to the eccentric older social worker, without condescending to them.
This is political theatre with a clear point of view, but it was honest enough to honor all the perspectives.
For all the tragedy, it was, in the end, an uplifting evening. Neu created a silent movement piece, ably assisted by Dan Thorson’s evocative lighting, that capped the production with a true sense of hope.
William Randall Beard writes about theater and music.