The unfailing eloquence of plain-spoken words illuminates a tragedy in “The Laramie Project,” the new play by Moises Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project that explores the violent murder of Matthew Shepard and its impact on the people of Laramie, Wy., where the murder occurred.
A world premiere presented by the Denver Center Theater Co., this poignant telling of the brutal facts is a riveting theatrical experience. It finds its own trenchant voice in the assembled word of the several hundred citizens of Laramie who were interviewed by members of the Gotham-based Tectonic troupe (of “Gross Indecency” fame). The play is dedicated to Shepard and to the people of Laramie.
Shepard, the diminutive, bright and gay student at the University of Wyoming at Laramie, is at the center of the play, but his voice is not heard. Instead he is brought to life through the words of friends and neighbors who lend affectionate comment. Brief, incisive comments alternate with aria-like declarations.
The cast of eight portrays about 30 individuals representing voices from the law, the churches and the university as well as the bartender and clients of the Fireside Lounge. In one way or another they all express revulsion at Shepard’s murder.
Despite the presentation nature of the play, it is never flat, thanks to the truth and vitality of the writing. There are compelling, dramatic moments, for instance a scene in which an elderly woman attacks two men she overhears denigrating homosexuals. The funeral scene, in which angel wings are devised to cover a hate sign, is magical.
Martha Swetzoff’s good use of video monitors depicting the media frenzy that followed the murder lends a thrilling immediacy, but the exceptional talents of the cast are most important in bringing the story to life. All the actors excel at evoking a variety of personalities.
Director Kaufman uses succinct staging techniques, placing performers in cogent relationships onstage. Robert Brill’s minimal set is ideal, and Betsy Adams’ lighting is shrewd.
The play represents a kind of democracy in action onstage, and it brings dramatic immediacy to a painful, complicated story.