Wyoming is a state filled with the beauty of nature. The majestic mountains of the Grand Tetons and the lakes and valleys of Yellowstone National Park are part of the DNA of this state that reflects a tranquil way of life. In Wyoming, if you encounter an antelope or bison blocking the road, the animal has the right of way. This tranquil image of life makes the contradictory picture of a young boy beaten, tied to a fence and left to die all the harder to swallow. In October 1998, this unfortunate truth is what happened in Laramie, Wyoming and is the basis of the theater production, “The Laramie Project.”
In their second play of the season, Ramapo theater students staged “The Laramie Project,” a docudrama compiled from interviews taken five weeks after Matthew Shepard died. A gay University of Wyoming student, Sheppard suffered a brutal beating at the hands of two men his own age. A boy bicycling found a figure encrusted with blood, unsure if what he saw was even human, and called the police. The first detective arriving on the scene reported seeing only two thin lines of skin visible through the dried blood on the victim’s face. She determined it must have been made by the tracks of his tears.
The cast of eight moved from one character to another all starting out as reporters for “The Laramie Project” then assuming the roles of members of the town who were either involved in the case or represented the makeup of the community. Interviews brought out the shock and confusion experienced as to how such a crime could have taken place anywhere, let alone in Laramie.
Sophomore Amanda Iannuzzi, who shifted from being a reporter to the boy who found Shepard at the fence, spoke of how she transitioned between the two characters. She revealed how researching the real-life characters helped to juggle one role to the other.
“Usually, you have time to think about the character and prepare for it. In this case, the simple shift of a body movement or changing the language gets you into the next role,” Iannuzzi said.
The murder of Matthew Shepard is credited with bringing awareness to the acceptance of homosexuality and the intolerance associated with it. As the residents of Laramie came forward, it was difficult to hear them speak of the goodness of small town life, far removed from the heinousness of a crime typically associated with inner-city living. The murder of Matthew Shepard changed the town forever.
“Laramie is a town defined by an incident,” said Detective Rob DeBree, chief investigator of the Shepard murder.
Yet, there are underlying truths that need to be disclosed as a Muslim girl character revealed.
“We need to own this crime. We are like this,” she said.
The play brings out the mixed tension of the town residents from statements by an anti-gay priest to the confession of one of the attackers to Shepard’s father, who refuses to offer forgiveness to the accused. At the same time, the issue of homosexuality as an underground reality is admitted by a professor at the university who, through interviews, makes it known that she is a lesbian.
Among several roles, senior actor Chris Kent played both the owner of the bar where Shepard first met his attackers as well one of the attackers himself. Explaining how he dealt with the emotions of the play’s subject matter, Kent said that it was necessary to be objective.
“We were directed not to judge the characters and leave it more open ended,” Kent said. “It becomes a more accurate portrayal of those involved.”
The play has been well received by audiences.
“I liked how the actors embodied the characters by isolating mannerisms. As far as the subject manner, this topic will never get old. This incident took place only a few years ago, and it is still relevant today,” alumni Amanda Castro-Conroy said.
The sound designer, Nick Cornwell, felt that the topic of hate crimes needed to be addressed.
“We live in a fairly liberal area but it is a subject that needs attention,” he said.
The play is still running today as well as Nov. 16 and 17 at the Sharp Theater at 8 p.m.