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The Laramie Project

Thoughtful, pained and powerful in a very understated way, "The Laramie Project" tells the story of Matthew Shepard's murder and the surrounding media circus from the point of view of the townspeople of Laramie, Wyo., itself.

With: Stephen Belber, Amanda Gronich, Mercedes Herrero, John McAdams, Andy Paris, Greg Pierotti, Barbara Pitts, Kelli Simpkins.

Thoughtful, pained and powerful in a very understated way, “The Laramie Project” tells the story of Matthew Shepard’s murder and the surrounding media circus from the point of view of the townspeople of Laramie, Wyo., itself. Following the brutal kidnapping and killing of Shepard, an event which brought hate crimes against gays into national view, Moises Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie and began interviewing members of the community, whether connected personally or profes-sionally to the Shepard incident or not. The result is one of the finest stage docudramas we’ve seen to date, a fair, multisided examination of a town’s confrontation with its own values.

The docudrama form isn’t new, although it primarily appears nowadays in one-person shows like those of Anna Deveare Smith, whose work provides the clearest model for “The Laramie Project.” There have been full-on plays in this style as well, most notably Emily Mann’s “Execution of Justice,” about the assassination of San Francisco politicians Harvey Milk and George Moscone and the trial that followed.

“The Laramie Project” is a far more penetrating, less obvious effort, and therefore one much more likely to survive over time. It’s also a vastly superior work to Kaufman’s previous hit, “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” which, while clear-sighted and intelligent, played choppily and was almost amateurish in the supporting performances.

Divided into three acts, “The Laramie Project” takes its time but manages never to seem like it’s dawdling. Kaufman et al.–there are a total of 11 people credited either as writers or dramaturgs –do a superb job of editing down their interviews and finding a way to give this entire incident and its after-effects a complete context.

The first act focuses primarily on Laramie itself — we learn about its history, class divisions, religious groups and what it’s like to be gay in a town that prides itself on a “live and let live” philosophy that’s not as accepting as it sounds on the surface.

At the same time, we’re hearing from people who knew Shepard and/or his murderers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson.

The middle act deals with the murder itself — people remember exactly where they were and what they were doing as news of the event began to trickle in, and the folks in town begin to feel besieged by the media onslaught that accompanied the event, growing in size and intensity as Shepard’s health inevitably deteriorated.

The final act focuses on the consequences, both external –the trials of the two accused — and internal. It also becomes a clear-eyed debate about the death penalty without ever appearing to be one.

Shepard himself is never portrayed, since the members of the theater troupe never met him. His father’s final announcement granting mercy to McKinney is depicted, but it’s the only time we see either of Shepard’s parents directly. What emerges is a story that does indeed become about much more than Matthew Shepard and his death.

In fact, the La Jolla Playhouse is making much of how “The Laramie Project” is following a production of “Our Town,” and the comparison is not just apt but dead-on. There’s no question that in his direction Kaufman has incorporated some of Thornton Wilder’s spare dramatic strokes, especially in courtroom and funeral scenes where the public arena is depicted with nothing but chairs in Robert Brill’s set design.

The production has a very fine polish. Video and projections are used to some extent to provide images of the town and of news coverage, but the show never tries to become too literal or realistic. The most potent images are the simplest ones, like the big sky in the background and the fields that represent the remote area where Shepard was bound to a fence.

All of this complements the material without overshadowing it, and the most powerful moments of this piece come in the verbal observation of small details of the crime, such as when the policewoman who was first to the scene describes Shepard’s face as being coated in blood except for the places where his tears had washed it off.

While extremely moving, “The Laramie Project” is also very restrained. It substitutes a broad-based sympathy for outrage, and while the show wears its emotions comfortably, it also keeps them in check, never allowing them to balloon into melodrama or deflate into agitprop. Its emotional balance is best defined at the end of the first act, when a doctor who treated both Shepard and McKinney on the same night expresses his feeling of pity for both the victim and the perpetrator.

There’s no satisfying dramatic climax to “The Laramie Project,” which is very intentional and strangely affect-ing. After all, life rarely provides such moments of catharsis, and this is a play that stays true to the unstructured truth. This sedate dramaturgy also gives us a sense that the Shepard murder still lingers over Laramie without the deep resolution the town would love to have — and it always will. That said, there are moments of epiphany for some individual characters, particularly the younger ones whose lives and attitudes are still in formation, like the young actor in the theater department whose parents don’t want him to play a gay character, and a friend of Shepard’s who finds she has a genuine talent for political activism.

The material refers frequently to the cast themselves — the theater company acknowledges that its members can’t be pure observers, that by descending on Laramie during this time of trauma they in fact became players in this story as well. There’s a laudable degree of honesty in this, a recognition that the observer changes the thing being examined — a recognition woefully lacking in our broadcast news media.

The self-referential elements in “The Laramie Project” occasionally become a bit self-congratulatory, though. When the Catholic priest admonishes his interviewers to tell the real truth, and then that’s the one line that repeats at the end, it does feel like the actor-writers are giving themselves a giant pat on the back for a mission accom-plished.

And to be frank, the performances themselves are not actually the strength of “The Laramie Project.” The cast does a good job in distinguishing the principal figures — with significant help from Moe Schell’s excellent cos-tume design and Betsy Adams’s fine lighting — but they often do so by becoming mild caricatures of the people they’re portraying, or by exaggerating accents that often feel contrived and off. Most of the performers here are the original interviewers as well, although that’s really not a prerequisite and may in some sense be a hindrance. Gregg Pierotti, Barbara Pitts and Kelly Simpkins do stand out for their more subtle ways of switching characters. But even when the performances are slightly overcooked, “The Laramie Project” as a whole never is.

Kaufman himself has finished filming an adaptation of this work for HBO, which is currently in its editing stages.

The Laramie Project

La Jolla Playhouse; 492 seats; $42 top

Production: A La Jolla Playhouse presentation in association with the Berkeley Repertory Theater of a three-act play by Moises Kaufman and the members of Tectonic Theater Project. Directed by Moises Kaufman, with additional staging by Leigh Fondakowski.

Creative: Set, Robert Brill; costumes, Moe Schell; lighting, Betsy Adams; music, Peter Golub; sound, Matthew Spiro; video and slides, Martha Swetzoff. Opened Aug. 5, 2001, reviewed Aug. 11. Closes Sept. 2. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MINS.

Cast: With: Stephen Belber, Amanda Gronich, Mercedes Herrero, John McAdams, Andy Paris, Greg Pierotti, Barbara Pitts, Kelli Simpkins.

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