What's most surprising about The Laramie Project, now showing at Sarasota's Backlot Theater, is how it avoids being all the things you might expect from a play about a hate crime. Laramie, written by Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project, is not, fundamentally, a defense of gay rights, nor is it an attempt to pillory all Americans as gay-bashers in thought or deed.
The play doesn't make the Western U.S. out to be a land of homophobic cowboys, and it doesn't even try to make Matthew Shepard — the 21-year-old student who was murdered in 1998 because he was homosexual — into a hero. What the play does instead is offer a kind of snapshot of American attitudes toward gays and lesbians in the late 20th century. And that snapshot exposes a country deeply divided, evidencing tolerance and intolerance, religious sanction and condemnation, deep sympathy and out-of-hand repudiation.
If there is a majority opinion among the citizens portrayed in this documentary drama, it's probably acceptance of gay citizens and shock at Shepard's murder. From the young man who discovered the unconscious Shepard's body to the first policewoman on the scene and the judge who presided over his murderers' trial, there's anger at the crime and nothing but contempt for the criminals.
Sure, there are homophobic voices in the mix: preachers of hate, apathetic friends of the two young men who robbed, tortured and killed college-student Shepard. But more prevalent are the voices of sadness and respect, like the hospital spokeswoman who breaks down when she announces Shepard's death or the victim's father who tells the court that he doesn't wish the death penalty for his son's murderer.
America, it would seem from the evidence collected here, is confused on gay rights, tending toward tolerance but still tempted by long-time prejudices. And the younger the speaker, the more likely he or she identifies with Shepard and not with his attackers. One might even say that this drama is hopeful.
The facts are well-known: In October 1998, Matthew Shepard left a nightspot in a truck with two young men who proceeded to rob and severely beat him and who then left him tied to a fence outside Laramie, Wyo., in near-freezing temperatures. Eighteen hours passed before a young bicyclist came upon the body and called the police. Shepard lived a little longer, but his injuries were beyond mending.
His attackers were easily found — they still had his credit card and his shoes in their truck — and after many months were both convicted of murder (one pleaded guilty, the other went to trial). Five weeks after the attack made national news, Kaufman and his theater group went to Laramie to interview over 200 townspeople. They went back again and again until the final verdicts and then turned the result into The Laramie Project. In it, 65 people are played by 10 actors. The play premiered in Denver, then went on to New York and was eventually produced in Laramie itself.
The Backlot production, directed by Whitney Morton, is powerful and fascinating, even with an uneven cast and the bare vestiges of a set. All the stories are told in the first person — by the limo driver who once took Shepard to a gay bar in Fort Collins, Colo.; the woman who knew Shepard when he was a boy she called "Choo-choo;" by Shepard's academic adviser at the University of Wyoming; by a gay man who wishes that more gays would stay in Laramie instead of moving to Denver. We meet people of various religions, from the Catholic priest who alone among local clergy had the courage to sponsor a vigil for Shepard, to the Baptist minister's wife who remarks that "we are all hoping this just goes away."
And we hear the story of Shepard's last hours of consciousness from the bartender who served him at the Fireside Bar, the boy who found his bloodied body on the outskirts of Laramie and the policewoman who cut him free from the fence. Wyoming's governor has a word — "I am outraged and sickened by the heinous crime committed on Matthew Shepard" — as does the police sergeant who feels that the national media is making his state look mean and bloody: "We had the [murder suspects] in jail in less than a day. I think that's pretty damn good." Finally, the hospital announces Shepard's death, and Shepard's mother releases a statement: "Go home, give your kids a hug, and don't let a day go by without telling them that you love them." At the trial of one of the murderers, a Kansas minister starts preaching hatred, so a dozen Laramie residents dress up as angels and surround the now-muffled preacher: "And we're calling it 'Angel Action.'"
Both suspects are convicted, and one of the last voices we hear is that of a young, straight college student who's auditioning to play a gay man in Angels in America. He wonders why his parents didn't mind him playing the multiple-murderer Macbeth in Shakespeare's classic — but are upset that he might play a pacific homosexual.
But he's also worried that he may have once been a bigot: "I just can't believe I ever said that stuff about homosexuals, you know. How did I ever let that stuff make me think that you were different from me?"
The acting in this Backlot production is uneven, but the story is so suspenseful — the facts are so unpredictable — that the play makes an impact in spite of the production. A few portrayals are outstanding: Sage Hall as the sensitive hospital spokeswoman, Margret Taylor as the deeply human policewoman called to the murder scene, Jack Eddleman as Shepard's father speaking against the death penalty with tears in his eyes and Scott Hinz as Jedediah Schultz, fledgling actor and budding human rights activist.
Whitney Morton's direction makes the best of a semiprofessional cast, and the players' costumes — jeans and T-shirts with minor additions to make characters distinct — are all that's really needed. I'd seen Laramie before — several years ago at Tampa's Stageworks — but this production was so successful, it easily made me forget the earlier one. In any case, it was a pleasure to witness such intelligent documentary theater.
So this isn't a sophisticated, polished production. I recommend it anyway. It's provocative and unpredictable, and more nuanced than most fiction. It never ceases to be fascinating.
And the subject, even today, is urgently important.