Sometimes, the timeliness of a production can seem kitsch. The blatant political relevance, the applicability of the core themes to the front page, can seem like a slap in the face of an audience member. Bluntness can be fatiguing, and “the big questions” can seem intrusive.
With The Laramie Project, the Richmond Triangle Players avoid this gaffe. Instead of taking the stage and imparting moral lessons, the company invites the audience into a mutable, curious dialectic, presenting a myriad of shifting viewpoints. I did not feel like I was being spoon-fed the news in parable form. Rather, each perspective, captured in time, made me ask a different question. How have I seen hate at work in my community? Who are the scapegoats of our fears and insecurities? And perhaps most importantly – Am I part of the problem?
The play takes its name from the town in which the brutal beating, torture, and murder of a young, gay college student took place. The student, Matthew Shepard, was a political science major on the verge of becoming a change-maker, a public servant, an ardent warrior for the rights of LGBTQ+ members of society, in Laramie and beyond. The hatred of two men, a hatred that was based on Matt’s sexual orientation and was the animus of his murder, robbed him of his future.
In an innovative approach to storytelling, the show depicts two intertwined narratives, creating a play-within-a-play effect that is engaging on every level. Most accounts are relayed from a series of interviews conducted by the members of the Tectonic Theater Project, the theater company whose idea it was to tackle the task of recording an oral history of the murder of Matthew Shepard. The Triangle Players, in turn, were responsible for portraying two sets of characters: those with a role in the Matthew Shepard story and those with a role in the creation of the play itself. The cast proves its remarkable flexibility, showcasing a cacophony of Middle American accents and shifting seamlessly from one empathetic character to the next.
In all this shifting of roles, we never meet Matt. But the characters we do meet paint a complete picture of one individual’s ripple effect on society. As the father of Matt Shepard, Scott Wichmann will make you ask, “What if this were my son?” through inevitable tears. As a preacher spewing a message of hatred from the pulpit, he’ll make you ask the exact same thing. Cole Metz is simultaneously heart-warming as a member of the Laramie gay community and heart-wrenching as the CEO of the hospital system where Matthew spent his last days. Finally, Rachel Dilliplane as the responding officer and Jacqueline O’Conner as her mother offer a nostalgic dialogue that proves both riotous and relatable. The occasional news report, medical update, or courtroom scene comes just in time to reorient the viewer, ensuring that the show still progresses as a cohesive and decipherable chronology of the crime and its aftermath.
Richmond Triangle Players’ The Laramie Project is an innovative, heartfelt, informative, riveting, depressing, uplifting production. Perfectly paced and brilliantly portrayed, it is the type of art that mobilizes communities by providing narrative representation. It is the type of art that can change minds.
For showtimes and tickets to The Laramie Project, playing at RTP’s Robert B. Moss Theatre, 1300 Altamont Avenue, through October 19, go here.[Photos by John MacLellan]