By Alicia Abruzzese
Hearts and minds were brought to a sense of sympathy and compassion this past weekend as Rider’s Theater department, under the direction of Professor Trent Blanton, presented Moisés Kaufman’s The Laramie Project, a story of a precious and undeserving life lost.
The Laramie Project is a very poignant, tear-jerking play. The story is constructed of 200 interviews with citizens, friends, family, clergymen and the policemen of Laramie, Wyo. who worked on the case. These interviews were all conducted a year after the shocking murder of Matthew Shepard.
Shepard was an openly gay young man who one day went to a bar, where he met and asked for a ride from locals Russell Arthur Henderson and Aaron James McKinney. The men proceeded to lure Shepard to a remote location, tie him to a fence, beat him mercilessly and leave him to die.
Shepard was found 18 hours later barely breathing by Aaron Kreifels, a boy riding his bike past the scene. Shepard suffered a plethora of injuries including an injury to the brain stem.
He never regained consciousness from the coma and was pronounced dead on Oct. 12, 1998 at 12:53 a.m. Henderson pled guilty and agreed to testify against McKinney.
A mere eight actors portrayed over 60 characters involved directly or indirectly with the Shepard case. Women played some male parts, yet the performances were extremely believable because the story is so enveloping.
“There were so many amazing aspects of being in this show,” sophomore cast member Shana Goodman said. “It was so much fun finding all these different characters because they are all so unique. It was challenging to go from playing a college student to playing a grandmother but the more we practiced the easier it became to transform ourselves.”
The Laramie Project explained how Laramie as a community was affected and how the townspeople reacted to both sides of this tragic event. It also brilliantly showed how something positive could come out of something so heinous, as it does much to shed light on the possibility that ignorant, homophobic minds can be changed.
Although the show is a heavy and moving piece, there were also funny and light moments throughout that brought the audience momentarily out of the sadness of the circumstances.
It is hopeful that audience members left with a more accepting outlook on people who are different. This is a play that makes people question how they treat others and is intended to inspire change. It is impossible not to feel the gradual, positive shift in perspective among Laramie’s citizens.
“There’s something magical about the show,” senior cast member Timothy Joya said. “It has a beautiful message and the cast really took it upon themselves to tell the story simply and truthfully as an ensemble.”
The cast did a wonderful job of demonstrating how, through one horrible incident, the people of this town were divided yet ultimately brought closer together. Shepard’s case impacted many. For instance, the doctor who treated him after the beating originally did not agree with his life choices, but through interaction with the family he realized that despite his own personal beliefs, Shepard was a son, a friend to many and most importantly a human being.
“Everyone in Laramie had their own point of view about the tragedy,” Goodman said. “It forced the whole cast to look at the situation through a bunch of different perspectives.”
The audience was presented with many of the townspeople’s frames of reference without being biased toward any viewpoint. The cast was able to convey the pain and heartache of both the Shepard family as well as the family of the accused.
“The audience is able to get a glimpse of all of the reactions to the event from all of the types of people who lived in Laramie at the time,” senior cast member Kelcie Kosberg said. “It’s informative without being “preachy.”
The play is composed of findings collected during a year-long journey made by members of the Tectonic Theater Project, a performing arts company founded in 1991 by Kaufman. Conversation jumps back and forth between characters and storylines, which made it necessary for the audience to pay close attention to detail.
Set design was purposely kept discrete and minimal as the original play calls for. The audience had to use its imagination for the parts that were not filled in by scenery.
The only props that were used were eight metal chairs and a table. This allowed for less distraction and caused the show to become more introspective and personal. Audience members actually began to feel like they were in the town of Laramie experiencing everything for themselves.
“I think it is important for the actors on stage to tell the story of Matthew Shepard and let the audience draw their own messages about the play,” junior cast member Christopher Bober said.
Only minimal costume changes were necessary, yet the audience believed that these eight actors were able to morph into each of the 60-plus characters throughout the performance.
The Laramie Project instills in its audiences a sense of hope that there is still good in the world and reassures society that the arts have not completely lost a sense of meaning.
“I can honestly say this experience has been life-changing,” senior cast member Jillian Carucci said. “For all of us involved, this experience holds a really special place in our hearts.”