Behind the Fence 

The Laramie Project

Next Theatre Company

The first thing you see on the Next Theatre stage, even before the lights go down, is a fence--or an abstraction of one: long, sleek, parallel timber rails arranged by set designer Rick Paul. To anyone familiar with the facts of Matthew Shepard's murder, it's a bone-chilling sight--a reminder of the horror of October 1998, when he was found tied to a fence on the Wyoming prairie. Diminutive and delicate, the openly gay Shepard--a freshman at the University of Wyoming in Laramie--had been pistol-whipped and left for dead, though he lay comatose in a hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, for several days before expiring. His attackers, Laramie locals Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, later confessed they'd lured their victim from a bar by pretending to be gay, taken him into the wilderness to rob him, then beaten him because, McKinney said, Shepard had tried to grope him. All three men were just 21 years old.

Almost immediately the desolate spot became ground zero for antigay hate crimes in the United States, even though the story was depressingly familiar: straight punks entice a queer into a situation where they can rob and beat him. Forty years ago a murder like this would have merited, at best, an item in the national gay press (which consisted mainly of mimeographed newsletters). Even 20 years BM--Before Matthew--you had to be a celebrity politician like Harvey Milk for your murder to become national news. But the attack on Shepard became a cultural milestone--perhaps because of the cowboy-country setting or because Shepard's fight for life engendered a special sense of drama. His ordeal seemed like a crucifixion, inviting a Christlike symbolism heightened by his name. The town of Laramie, shell-shocked by the murder, was subsequently traumatized by invading media; even Shepard's parents felt violated when their son's death became the subject of worldwide attention.

A month after the crime, Moises Kaufman and members of New York's Tectonic Theater Project (which Kaufman founded) made the first of six pilgrimages to Laramie, where they interviewed townspeople. They ended up creating a play not only about Laramie--its response to the crime and its aftermath, its soul-searching, its debate over values--but about their own changed perspectives on small-town America. The Laramie Project premiered last year in Denver and was subsequently presented overseas, off-Broadway, and around the United States, from La Jolla to Laramie. It's now receiving its Chicago-area premiere in a beautifully crafted production notable for its emotional restraint, which makes the story far more moving than any melodramatic moralizing would have.

The murder itself is not dramatized; we never see Shepard and only glimpse McKinney and Henderson briefly. Instead The Laramie Project tantalizes us with conflicting, inconclusive sketches of the predators and their prey. Shepard was bright, funny, and gentle but also feisty, reckless, and, to some, a bit of a "rich bitch." A Milk in the making, he was an enthusiastic gay activist but also a barfly who thought nothing of hiring a limousine to take him to a gay nightspot in Fort Collins. Well educated and intelligent, he was "not so smart in commonsense things," according to one friend. Henderson (a Mormon Eagle Scout gone bad) and McKinney (who lived with a girlfriend and their baby) were trailer-park trash, small-time crooks and drug users. McKinney seemed to have a special hang-up about homosexuality, but even friends aware of his violent streak were shocked at the brutality of Shepard's murder. Beyond these factoids, the three central figures in one of the most widely reported murders in recent memory remain enigmas in the play.

This is the biggest weakness of The Laramie Project, whose creators were obviously drawn to document an antigay hate crime. McKinney's murderous homophobia had to have been rooted in some deep personal pain as much as in religious conviction and/or social prejudice; though his "gay panic" defense rightly failed to win him leniency, there was surely some truth to it, just as there is a terrible appropriateness to his fate: lifetime incarceration in a community of violent sexual predators. What built up--and triggered--such deep-seated rage? That question remains unexplored.

But The Laramie Project does offer a touching, thought-provoking portrait of how the crime affected the survivors: Shepard's parents and friends, McKinney's and Henderson's family and friends, and indeed the whole town. A Brooklyn-based friend of mine says that after the September 11 attack every New Yorker considers himself a survivor, and surely that's also true of the locals left to make sense of the tragedy that ended Shepard's life and ruined McKinney's and Henderson's.

Kaufman (who drew on court transcripts for his splendid docudrama Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, seen here three years ago at Court Theatre) and the Tectonic members set up as oral historians here: the script comes entirely from interviews with Laramie citizens, public records, and the journals the interviewers kept. The result is a cross between Brechtian theater of alienation, story theater, and what was once called new journalism, in which the reporter was as much a part of the story as his subject. (One journal keeper even recalls his first encounter with chicken-fried steak.) The eight actors depict a myriad of characters, from the Tectonic members (who played themselves in the original production) to a cross section of Laramie. What's so striking in this play--a sort of Our Town for our times--is the diversity of that citizenry. Small-town life in the age of Wal-Mart is a far cry from the homogeneity of Grover's Corners. In Laramie, a town of 27,000, there are Baptists and Catholics, Mormons and Muslims, even the odd Unitarian or two. There are townies and collegians, conservatives and liberals, gays (open and closeted) and straights. All are affected by the murder of Matt Shepard.

Among those we meet are two members of the university's theater department: the teacher who helped round up interviewees for the New York visitors (and who moved to Wyoming because she thought it was safer and friendlier than the midwest) and a student who starred in a school production of Angels in America despite his conservative parents' disapproval. A female cop recalls fearing she contracted AIDS while trying to resuscitate the blood-soaked Shepard (who was in fact HIV positive, though he may not have known it); a police officer's wife is angry that the death in the line of duty of one of her husband's colleagues merited scant attention in the press while Shepard's murder was front-page news. The bartender at the tavern where Shepard met McKinney and Henderson agonizes over what he might have done to prevent the killing; the UW student who discovered Shepard while biking wonders what divine purpose brought him to the spot; a lesbian student decides to become an activist after leading candlelight vigils for Shepard. Wyoming's GOP governor decries the murder but also frets that hate-crimes legislation would confer "special rights" on gays; a hospital spokesman recalls his tears on camera when he announced Shepard's death--and the E-mails that mocked him for crying for a faggot. A liberal Catholic priest sternly admonishes the Tectonic company to "say it right"; a Mormon minister explains his decision to offer Henderson spiritual counsel after he was excommunicated by church elders; a Baptist preacher expresses hope that Shepard had time to consider his sinful ways before he lapsed into a coma. And Shepard's father reflects on his son's final hours of consciousness as he hung from the fence--not alone, the father says, but surrounded by "friends," the stars and the sunrise--before requesting life imprisonment for McKinney instead of execution. The killer and Laramie itself were spared the obscenity of the death penalty. Lucky thing for the Tectonic crew, who were able to end their play with an upbeat message of love and healing coming out of horror and pain.

Director Kate Buckley has coached heartfelt, understated performances from her cast. Though some are better than others at distinguishing among their numerous characters, all ground their portrayals in the unaffected, focused details that make us believe in them while remaining aware that these are actors playing actors playing roles. The widest range is displayed by Russell Hardin as (among others) the Baptist preacher, McKinney's stoner buddy, the spiritually questing bike rider, and Henderson at his sentencing hearing, expressing remorse with a coolness that may signal either dishonesty or emotional numbness. Jesse Weaver is the acting student, the bartender, and a defiant McKinney; Hanna Dworkin is the policewoman as well as a lesbian professor; Susan Felder is the drama teacher and the angry policeman's wife; Jenny McKnight is Shepard's lesbian-activist friend; Ana Sferruzza is a veil-wearing feminist Muslim; Kelly Van Kirk is Kaufman, the hospital spokesman, and Shepard's father; and Matt Kozlowski is an eccentric limousine-service operator and a closeted 52-year-old gay man moved to tears when the university's homecoming parade turned into a pro-Shepard march.

Jaymi Lee Smith's lighting transforms Next's intimate playing area into a wide range of locations; Joseph Cerqua's music (guitar, cello, flute, and harmonica) and sound design (whooshing wind, squawking birds, a distant train whistle) hauntingly evoke the spaciousness and loneliness of the western countryside. And the fencelike rails that frame the stage--empty except for chairs and a table that look like they might have been accidentally left out after rehearsal--constantly, subtly remind us of Shepard's solitary suffering. Harvey Milk, who prophesied his own assassination, asked that the bullet that ripped through his brain open every closet door; the blood Matt Shepard shed opened hearts around the world and reshaped the lives of one small town's inhabitants. It's a reshaping movingly chronicled in this theatrical gospel.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Johnny Knight.

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