The Seeing Place Theater, now in its fifth year, has proved to be a bold and spirited force in independent theater, producing thoughtful works that are timelessly relevant to our cultural moment. To celebrate Pride Month this season, SPT is performing The Laramie Project, the fourteen year-old docu-drama from the Tectonic Theater Project about the murder of gay university student Matthew Shepard and its effects on the small town of Laramie, Wyoming. Laramie is a play notable for its scope– playwright Moises Kaufman and the ensemble compiled over 200 interviews and play over 60 characters. Its documentary-style structure is rooted in reality and in truthfully examining the event and its echoes. As one community member urges, “I will trust you people that if you write a play of this that you say it right, say it correct.”
But for me, part of the beauty of its truthfulness is its refusal to paint a full picture of the murder and of its victim, nor to make any assumptions about the town and its residents. It gives exactly what it receives. There are no generalizations made about the event, nor does it dramatize Shephard’s life and death to make broad claims about American culture or to further an agenda. How do you make sense out of something so senseless? How can you streamline a narrative when there are so many views and experiences of it? So much of the play’s power lies in its mindful, objective, and almost purely observational relationship to the town and its inhabitants. It is also an extraordinarily compassionate play. The only character that the play reserves judgment for are judgers themselves, the most prominent of which is Westboro Baptist leader Fred Phelps, whose hatefulness is not even battled against but rather gracefully diminished by strategically placed angel wings.
Founding company managers and cast members Erin Cronican and Brandon Walker direct this production with a company of six other actors, and they seem to have picked up on exactly these qualities that make The Laramie Project such an extraordinary and meaningful play. I’ve never seen a company that felt so present and so invested in their work. When not performing their various roles, the actors remained onstage, watching and listening to each others’ scenes. They were like an audience to their own work. They supported each other, held hands at times, laughed and showed emotion. They let the play freshly affect them much like it freshly affects us.
Every time a word or phrase emotionally resonated with an actor (usually not the one performing the scene) they wrote it on chalkboards located upstage. These moments were random and the words on the chalkboard change with every performance, as the actors’ in-the-moment reactions to the play also change. This felt like a beautiful ritual– an homage to the play’s lasting importance and to Matthew Shepard’s legacy. Not only did the chalkboard writing give a visual record of some of the most striking pieces of the work, but it also made the actors incredibly mindful and present as they experienced the play with us simultaneously. The resulting sense of community (a supportive and compassionate one at that) between the audience and actors, and amongst the performers themselves, reminds us of the hope LGBT people found in Matthew Shepard’s life and the love-affirming power of loss.
The Laramie Project is being presented closely in association with the Matthew Shepard Foundation. A dollar from every ticket sold will be donated to the foundation. Seeing Place Theater is also produced a series of talkbacks through the run of the show dealing with relevant issues of art, faith, and sexuality identity, as well as free public readings of LGBT-themed works such as The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later (June 24) and Well With My Soul (June 23).