Judging by the news, our stormy blue orb is still in many ways uncivilized. On the subject of human differences, for instance: There continue to be people who not only hate what's different, but feel that they have the right to degrade, assault, torture and even kill those who don't fit their personal mold. American society is no exception: after all, it was only 40 years ago that black children were being firebombed in churches, and only 80-odd years ago that women weren't considered competent to vote. Anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, discrimination against the Irish in Massachusetts or against Asian-Americans in California; the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans through the crimes of slavery to the Civil and Women's Rights battles of the '60s and beyond — U.S. society has been a turbulent field on which the effort to truly civilize has contended with the stubborn human tendency to dehumanize and abuse the Other, the One Who Differs. Yes, we've made progress. But there's still a ways to go.
At least that's the evidence of The Laramie Project, the powerful and beautifully acted documentary drama currently showing at Stageworks. According to author/interviewers Moises Kaufman and the Members of the Tectonic Theater Project, the 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard took place in a society that has yet to admit gay and lesbian citizens into the ranks of the fully human. There are more than a few hopeful signs — Kaufman's Laramie is surprisingly full of unprejudiced straights, like the hospital CEO who breaks into tears when announcing, on television, Shepard's death; or the mothers who show solidarity with Shepard by marching with their 6-year-old children. But also significant are the rancher who says the murder was half the victim's fault ("If you step out of line you're asking for it") and the highway patrolman's wife who complains that Shepard "pushed himself around. I think he flaunted it." Finally, you have to wonder if gay Jonas Slonaker is right: that what Laramie's — and America's — often stated "Live and let live" ethos really means is "If I don't tell you I'm a fag, you won't beat the crap out of me. I mean, what's so great about that? That's a great philosophy?"
Or maybe even Slonaker sees things too simplistically. What we discover as we watch Stageworks' nine actors play more than 60 different roles is that Laramie is far from a "typical" gay-bashing community, that it has a bit of everything, including a gay and lesbian community and some of the strong liberal tendencies you might reasonably expect in a university town. Thanks to Anna Brennen's impressive direction and the busy cast's terrific acting — especially fine are Keven Renken, Dru Robertson, Desiree Sheridan and Dawn Truax — you really come to feel, by the time these fascinating three acts have passed, that you know a whole population: policewomen, ranchers, students, ministers, baffled friends of the murderers and quick-to-generalize national reporters.
The murder itself is treated chronologically, with testimony from witnesses to Shepard's last free moments followed by statements from the young man who found the badly beaten student, then transcripts of the murderers' arraignments and confessions. Even the four days during which the hospitalized Shepard struggled to survive are suggested through emotionally powerful medical updates. The drama continues with the trials and sentencing of the perpetrators. By the time you walk away from Michael DuMouchel's simple but evocative set — three segments of fence similar to what Shepard was roped to by his assailants — you've become an expert on the case, the town and the official anti-climax: "They haven't passed shit in Wyoming ... at a state level, any town, nobody anywhere, has passed any kind of laws, anti-discrimination laws or hate crime legislation, nobody has passed anything anywhere. What's come out of it? What's come out of this that's concrete or lasting?"
Well, at the very least: this play. While The Laramie Project doesn't propagandize for a gay lifestyle, it does potently suggest that those who reject any way of life must couch their objections within an insistence on tolerance and respect for human dignity. It's a pretty good guess that people will continue to differ. What The Laramie Project submits is that we haven't yet taken enough responsibility for living decently with those differences.
And that message, skillfully conveyed, makes this luminous production one of the most important local theater events in recent memory.