“It’s a good place to live. Good people, lots of space,” Reed Bobroff ’16 says in his role as a native of Laramie, Wyo., in the Yale Dramatic Association’s production of “The Laramie Project.” This was an irrefutable description of Laramie until October 1998, when 21-year-old college student Matthew Shepard was kidnapped, tortured and left to die on a fence in the outskirts of town. His crime was his homosexuality. His killers were two other young men, also Laramie natives. Suddenly, the town’s “lots of space” was lousy with eager reporters, looking for answers that the townsfolk did not yet have. Laramie no longer represented a “good place” but, instead, a hate crime. This show tells the story of how it heals and how it understands what has happened.
The play, told through interviews conducted by the Tectonic Theater Project, opens with the company’s arrival at Laramie. But the Dramat slips up when it comes to the audience’s first impressions of that apparently idyllic town. Their set features three rows of wooden power-transmission poles at stage left. While these poles are meticulously crafted and impressive (wires included and all), they are also distracting. For one, the town is supposedly home to a warm and vibrant community; it’s said to be picture-perfect, with blue skies and views of “mountains with the little snow on top.” That is, the town itself is described to foil the ugly crime that it breeds. While this is not a call to overdo it with comfy chairs and other feel-good embellishments, it’s worth noting that the overwhelming timber is not necessarily the next step down — or the next couple of steps down, for that matter. These poles distinguish themselves from any kind of visual comfort or beauty, which could have made for a powerful contrast. While it could be argued that these might be, in fact, realistic attributes of the town, it is unclear why they use up the entire left half of the set. This leaves the right with a more neutral, stepped stage, which is actually more practical when isolating the characters in the interviews.
A product of over 200 interviews with Laramie locals, the play moves quickly, jumping from one interview to another, with each member of its 10-person cast taking on multiple and consistent roles throughout. While these swaps could have easily been chaotic and confusing, they are choreographed perfectly and paired with coherent onstage costume-changes, evidence of great technical effort. The play also includes alternating narrators who introduce each character’s name and affiliation. This is a key choice made by director Nailah Harper-Malveaux ’16, and a smart one, as it allows the audience to get used to the pace of the production. The switching roles also serve to remind us that these are only a few of the many accounts to be found in an entire affected community.
The cast is particularly strong. Catherine Connolly (Simone Policano ’16) is an openly gay faculty member at the University of Wyoming. Policano accurately shows how a confident and put-together woman deals with her own fear in the aftermath of a horrifying hate crime, suggesting an apt sense of confusion in her eloquent speech. In his interview, bartender Matt Galloway (Jacob Osborne ’16), who worked at the last place Shepard was seen in public, conveys remorse. He had noticed Shepard’s eventual murderers, the rude and loud-mouthed Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, approach the well-mannered Shepard at the bar, but he did nothing to intervene. Osborne plays the regretful bartender convincingly, combining an eager tone in his detailed account with obvious discomfort in speaking. His naïve demeanor creates for some of the most poignant moments in the play, especially in his description of Matthew Shepard. He says, “If you had 100 customers like him it’d be the … the most perfect bar I’ve ever been in. Okay? And nothing to do with sexual orientation. Manners. Politeness. Intelligence.” For McKinney and Henderson, though, it had everything to do sexual orientation.
The people of Laramie sincerely want to understand this kind of hatred, but with understanding comes discomfort. That means they need to come to terms with their discomfort surrounding sexuality, religion and, most importantly, humanity. Osborne and the rest of the cast subtly and skillfully portray this initial discomfort in their first few interviews. While the interviewers later win praise for starting this conversation within the town, they do not come off as glorified saviors. For the most part, the interviews are not shown in Q-and-A format, but in monologues by the interviewees. More importantly, the interviewers take on inferior positions in the play. They stand clear of the spotlight when these monologues take place and are only present onstage to remind the audience of the overarching project the play depicts. Catholic priest Roger Schmit (Skyler Ross ’16) says in his interview, “Just deal with what is true. You know what is true. You need to do your best to say it correctly.” In this case, the cast does their job truthfully.
“The Laramie Project” is a conversation that has just begun.
The show will run through Feb. 23 at the Iseman Theater.