The Laramie Project

by John Stoltenberg

If you’re a theater buff who’s worried that the shutdown’s shuttering of Ford’s Theatre and the shunting of The Laramie Project to a nearby church means audiences there must be getting something second rate, I have a news flash:  The show temporarily onstage at the First Congregational United Church of Christ is not only first rate; it’s a once-in-a-lifetime theater experience—a historic convergence of site and substance that is not to be missed.

Remember how MTV used to have great musicians perform “unplugged”? And remember how piercingly the music and lyrics came through, how authentic the musicians’ voices sounded, how intimate the experience was, how phenomenal the songs were on their own? That’s exactly what’s going on now over at 945 G Street NW except it’s better. It’s The Laramie Project unplugged. And it’s a theatrical epiphany so pure of heart, so raw with ache and hurt, so brimful of unadorned hope that by the end it feels more like a benediction than a play.

The familiar story that is the source of this show is still deeply disturbing: Fifteen years ago a young gay man named Matthew Shepard was murdered in Laramie, Wyoming. He had been tied to a fence outside town, beaten brutally, and left alone and bleeding until by chance a bicyclist found him 18 hours later. In critical condition, he died a few days after. Two young men were convicted of the crime, which was said at trial to have been motivated by hatred of homosexuals. A troupe of documentary play makers named the Tectonic Theater Project, led by playwright Moisés Kaufman, trekked from New York City to Laramie, where they conducted more than 200 interviews with townsfolk. Those interviews, together with selected public records, have been deftly edited and structured into the text that is The Laramie Project. The DC cast of ten had been expecting to perform it in the theater where the Great Emancipator was shot. But that was not to be. In the U.S. House of Representatives, the party of Lincoln pulled the plug.

The show has been stripped down to essentials. The scenic design, lighting design, and projections intended for the Ford’s Theatre stage have been left behind. It’s just superb acting on a bare wood stage surrounded by the sanctuary’s all-white walls. There are a few props, costume changes, and pieces of furniture, minimal light cues, a semblance of sound design. Yet the entire performance feels right at home, as if it was meant to be done here, as if it could not possibly be more immediate anywhere else. Not only is nothing missing; what’s there takes on fresh meaning. The flat-white chancel background functions like an art gallery in which are showcased human portraits brought to life by ten gifted actors. Each actor channels multiple characters with such empathy, particularity of mien and dialect, and transformational precision that a castful of Anna Deavere Smiths could scarcely surpass them.  The flat snow-covered plains of Laramie, the open sky, the vast beauty and desolation at the outskirts of town, are here evoked honestly, without fake effect or stagecraft. Through the actors’ and characters’ human-oh-so-human voices, the barren landscape where young Matthew Shepard had his last look at the world becomes completely vivid in the mind. And suddenly, solely from simple, untricked-out storytelling, the heart cracks open. Again and again.

The circumstances that led to this site-specific emotion-letting are awash in irony and symbolism. Totally by a fluke of insane fiscal brinksmanship—fueled by the same fanatic, far-right, religiously fundamental faction that espouses hatred of homosexuals—theater history’s most moving and spiritual parable about gay people’s sacred right to their humanity is now playing, mirabile dictu, in an LGBTQ-welcoming house of worship. Rarely in the eons since theater first arose as religious rite can one find such synchronicity of place and performance.

There’s a lot of God talk in the script of The Laramie Project. The play is populated by plainspoken, mostly religious plains people and an assortment of well-meaning clerics who preach and teach them their various faiths, from  liberal to conservative. The wrong-reverend Fred Phelps even shows up spewing bile about God’s hatred for gay people and others consigned to hell. Each resident of Laramie is wrestling in their own way to make sense of what happened to Matthew against their shared backstory of scriptural strictures interpreted as condemning homosexuality. Looming over the whole play is the figure of Matthew as murdered martyr, and the crucifixion-like image of his beaten and bloodied body bound to a wooden fence. So when the religious language comes up—as it does often, all across the doctrinal spectrum—it has, in this hallelujah happenstance, a resonance of metaphor and meaning that it could not possibly have in a federally funded, therefore strictly secular, stage space.

One does not have to be a believer to get that something unbelievably beautiful is going on here. In this sanctified edifice that has given temporary sanctuary to actors in economic exile, one can fleetingly glimpse, in the purest light possible: this is why there is theater.

So praises be.

* * *

Also not to be missed is the exhibition “Not Alone: The Power of Response,” through November 3, across the street from Ford’s Theatre. It features letters written to Matthew Shepard’s parents in the aftermath of his murder, as well as a wall-length photograph of the probable scene of his death. Perusing those moving letters, and taking in the painful panorama, is the perfect prelude to seeing the play.