Twenty years on, The Laramie Project is as relevant as ever | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

Twenty years on, The Laramie Project is as relevant as ever 

It asks questions that are fundamental to our national identity.

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Emily Schwartz

With text drawn in part from court transcripts, this complex, multilayered piece of theater chronicles the case of Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student whose 1998 murder paved the way for passage of federal hate crimes legislation. But the play also dramatizes the experience of its creators, playwright Moisés Kaufman and members of his Tectonic Theater Project, who traveled to Laramie, Wyoming, after Shepard’s death to interview residents of the traumatized town.

Originally performed in 2000 by the Tectonic ensemble, the play now demands that its cast do double-plus duty, portraying the Tectonic company members as well as the numerous Laramie citizens they spoke with. This structure illuminates the play’s narrative, which shows how two very different communities—the New York actors, several of whom were themselves gay or lesbian, and the Laramie townsfolk, several of whom struggled to reconcile their horror at Shepard’s brutal killing with their religion-based disapproval of homosexuality—impacted each other, experiencing a shared healing despite sometimes vast cultural and emotional differences.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Shepard’s killing, a landmark event in American LGBTQ+ history, and AstonRep Theatre Company’s staging, directed by Derek Bertelson, is the second Chicago production of The Laramie Project this summer. But the play speaks to more than LGBTQ+ issues. It addresses fundamental questions that are more relevant than ever in our divided, angry nation. Will we allow ourselves to be shaped by hate or compassion? Cruelty or kindness? Fear or hope?  v

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