Lessons to learn from ‘The Laramie Project’

Although many have seen the HBO adaptation of “The Laramie Project,” I must insist that you see it on the stage at the Barksdale.

Going behind enemy lines, Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project visited Laramie, Wyo. to get the true story about the murder of gay college student, Matthew Shepard. What they ended up doing was capture a town and a country still raw from a brutal murder that people couldn’t help blaming themselves for.

The words you hear are not a work of fiction. They are the words of the people of Laramie. Each actor had seven to 11 parts to perform. Some had small accessories that they would change for the different parts but most simply presented each person in a different way. And to help the audience in discerning the different people, an actor who wasn’t speaking at the moment would introduce the character who was speaking.

Sara J. Heifetz did an amazing job as Romaine Patterson, a spunky “little lesbian” who was close friends with Shepard. Of the long list of characters that Heifetz played this one stood out. She was particularly good as the leader of “Angel Action” after Shepard’s funeral. Patterson organized “Angel Action” after an outspoken man was protesting at Shepard’s funeral, she then gathered a group to literally spread their angel wings in front of this man so he would not get the media attention that he craved.

The most difficult part to sit through was when Shepard’s father, Dennis (played by Rick Brandt), stood up at the trial of Aaron McKinney, one of his son’s murderers, to read a speech that he had written. In the speech he stated, ” I would like nothing better than to see you die Mr. McKinney. However this is the time to begin the healing process. To show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy.” Seeing Shepard’s father made the brutality of his murder all the more real, and needless to say there were few dry eyes in the theater after the scene was through.

The humorous scenes really balanced out the seriousness of the situation, without making light of it. One great part was when eccentric old limo driver, Doc O’Connor (played by Scott Wichmann) spoke about how Wyoming gay men were the rough and tumble kind who chopped wood and would beat someone up who called them a “fag.”

DJ Shadow (played by Scott Wichmann), who was the last person to speak with Matthew before he left with Aaron McKinney and Russel Henderson, had a part that was small but unforgetable. Wichmann was offstage while speaking as Shadow. They got the light to hit him in a certain way that he made shadows on the back wall of the stage. He spoke in an outdated urban dialect that was hilarious.

The message of tolerance and hope for the future really got across with Father Roger Schmit (played by Rick Brandt). Although the Catholic religion states that homosexuality is wrong, Schmit hosted the vigil for Shepard the very night that he died. He spoke about how he debated whether to call the bishop for permission to do so, but then he thought that he was going to do it because it was the right thing to do.

Reggie Fluty (played by Raina Ames) was the policewoman who responded to the 911 call by Aaron Kreifels (played by Jill Bari Steinberg) after Shepard was discovered hung the fence. She and the boy described Shepard as not looking like a human but more like a scarecrow.

Fluty goes through her own troubles when she thinks that she has received AIDS from Shepard, which turns out to be a false alarm.

“The Laramie Project” needs to come to conservative places like Virginia. As much as we would like to distance ourselves from hate crimes like the one that happened to Matthew Shepard, it is obvious that even people in our community can stoop so low, for instance when a group of gay VCU students were attacked last semester. This is a play that everyone can take something away from.

“The Laramie Project” will be performed through March 29, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Historic Empire Theatre, located at 114 W. Broad St. Call 282-2620 for tickets.

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