The Laramie Project, by Moises Kaufman and the Members of Tectonic Theater Project. Directed by Monica Bliss.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Amy Hausknecht, Bill Schein, Chris Montemagni, Colleen Jordan, Brian Litscher; photo: Kyron Hanson
"I don't understand the magnitude of some people's hate."
Elliott Loverin; photo: Kyron Hanson
A company of nine actors, all dressed in black, on a black stage play 63 characters who talk for two and a half hours about the life and death of Matthew Shepard, a 22 year old student who died an awful, highly implausable death in the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming twenty years ago. Tortured by two men because he was gay, left tethered to a fence alone, exposed to the worst conditions, Shepard's death was an inspiration to thousands of people across this country. Moises Kaufman, who is a character, a voice, in this play and his troupe of players made six visits to Laramie, talking to people who were affected by this senseless murder and the results can be seen on stage at The Whit in Pittsfield, MA played by this mostly non-professional company. I defy you not to be moved by what you hear. The directness of the writing, the stark - nearly naked - aspect of this production and the sincerity of the players could move a rock to tears. It certainly moved me.
Elliott Loverin, for example, as the boy who discovered Shepard, nearly dead, and his attempt to understand what happened and why he was the one God sent to find the victim cannot fail to move you with his simple, sweet questions about his place in this altered universe. Loverin plays the fury of an on-line questioner, the openness of a disbeliever and more with a simple, straightforward delivery that makes sense out of the nonsense of Shepard's death. As a student whose parents cannot believe that he would participate in a play about gay people, Loverin touches on the reality of youth refusing to be cowed by common beliefs held by his elders. This Pittsfield High School Junior performs way past his own years and experience.
Aleah Tarjick; photo: Kyron Hanson
Aleah Tarjick, like Loverin, takes on diverse roles, schoolgirls, women of color and religious differences. She plays a boy. She acts like the adult she will be and she sweetens many of the darker moments in this play with her fresh, buoyant and deliberate delivery of line and character.
Others in the company bring similar attributes to the play. Under Monica Bliss's careful direction, for example, Deirdre Flynn Sullivan enlivens the common folk, the local farmers, the parents of those peripherally involved with the cast. In two memorable moments, as the mother of a policewoman who has accidentally come into contact with Shepard's blood, she brings human concern for someone other than the victim into sharp and clear focus.
Kas Maroney, the narrator andan actress who disrobes the hypocrisy of priests with honesty and as a person with an emotional passion for truths not spoken, steps into her various roles with a suddenness that is both alarming and engaging. "I'd rather have opinions I don't like," one of the lines in this play says about the effected mob of local people. Maroney's performance shows us how relevant such a line is in the telling of this story. Shepard's personal life is examined and dissected and his own choices are offered, not as a rationale for his death, but rather as an incidental view of his possible life. No punches are pulled as history lays out before us.
Bill Shein, Colleen Jordan; photo: Kyron Hanson
Colleen Jordan plays the cop whose hands touch infected blood. She plays many roles but none as simple and straightforward as this one. Amy Hausknecht plays women of reason and women of obsession and passion. Both of these actresses have moments that dig deep into the unified soul of the audience.
Brian Litscher, sometimes with book in hand and sometimes not, is enthralling with his passionate delivery of the opposite opinion of the crowd. Similarly Chris Montemagni nearly stops the show several times when he brings his characters to the forefront of a moment and tells us things we don't want to hear.
But with all of the fine delivery from this company, it is Bill Schein whose work shines brightest. As a doctor, as a priest, as a limousine driver he excels in character reveals. In every different role he undertakes - including Moises Kaufman himself - Schein is terrific. However near the end of the play he becomes Dennis Shepard, the father of the murdered boy, with a post-trial speech to the man who committed the heinous crime of murder. With his calm, reasoned delivery of this lengthy moment Schein takes the play by the roots of its hair and shakes us awake to the reality of what it is to be wholly human. If this doesn't move you, you don't actually live in this world. At a time when prejudice and hatred threatens to destroy this country, every person alive needs to hear the words uttered by that man, as Schein delivers them. They contain a message for our time, spoken twenty years before by a man bereaved but filled with the milk of human kindness. If this play is about anything at all, it is about this moment and what it means to bring truth, compassion and honesty to a world embittered by the horrors of hatred.
"He came into this world prematurely, and he left it prematurely." What he left behind is all here, right here, right now. This is why I love theater: truth told.
The Laramie Project only plays through December 2 at The Whitney Center for the Arts. Go to www.thewhit.org for more information and for tickets.