note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Joe Coyne
Playwright Moises Kaufman and Tectonics Theatre Project
Director Nancy Curran Willis and Jason Sutherland
The administrator of the hospital came forward to deliver another medical report on the condition of Matthew Shepard. I reminded myself that this was James Barton acting the part. The James Barton I had seen in a Providence playhouse. Along with the audience I knew he was announcing the death of Matthew as it had just been discussed on stage. But the administrator was broken up, unable to complete the few lines he had to say into the microphone. The longest few seconds of the evening let us ponder and internalize what was clear from the first moment of the story. A son and friend had died, not a new martyr or a motif.
Later the administrator in explaining what happened to him at the podium gets to repeat the scene by again being unable to finish the story. It works so well the first time, it works so well the second.
We all get sandbagged watching stories on television about small children falling down wells, about scout troops missing in local hills cut off by a sudden storm, about horrific crimes. You watch and within a short time they are followed and replaced by new stories. The old ones don't fade, they vanish, revised when there is a trial, especially if it is on Court TV. Still the players are shadow figures larger than life obscuring the landscape. The Laramie Project works at making this story a personal one. Lower the lights better for us to hear their attempts at understanding.
In Boston Theatre Work's production there are some 60 characters portrayed by eight actors. Anne Gottlieb with her leather jacket and firm declarative statements, struts hunkeringly as the police officer who found the body. She is affectionately sassed by her mother as they fight over her possible infection with HVID from blood at the site. Tom Lawlor with the attachment of a rectangular piece of white cloth to his neck becomes the caring and conflicted Catholic priest thoughtfully cautioning the acting company to tell it true at all cost. Putting on a sweater he converts to a dizzy bartender retelling again the story of the night of the kidnapping and who was involved. Forest Walker as a young student who in defying his parents captures a scholarship with a monologue from "Angels in America". His character gains for the first time some control in his life
The Laramie Project is not the story of a gay boy's death, it is the progress report of ten New Yorkers who come to view a distant town where a death has occurred. It may be typical America or it may be distant America. We hear about opposing groups: a little bit about the gays and straights, more about the cowboys and the collegiates, the profs and the jocks, those with jobs that pay and those on minimum wage. To this is added: the town and the actors, the cast and the cowboys.
This is a docudrama with great text/reporting. Matthew's family issued statements which raised the level of intelligent speech uttered in crisis situations - clear, articulate and specific. It is how you let the events affect you: you're conquered or you resign. Rather than dwelling on the horror of the 18 hours that their son spent alone brutally beaten and tied to a fence, dying: they see (or they choose to see) the beauty of the sky amid the vastness of the land, the odor of the conifers, the glowing night sky. On the death of his daughter, Mark Twain said, "It is one of the mysteries of our nature that a man, all unprepared, can receive a thunder-stroke like that and live." This is perhaps one way you can begin to survive with dignity.
Backdrops via projected slides with a very few and selective photographs opened up the stage into a great plain: it made a room with a low ceilings into the wide Wyoming vista. One engaging effect was of a graveyard scene with a slide of many umbrellas in the rain and then a few actor held umbrellas completing the view: a multitude out of several.
One comment hit very close to home for my father had done a similar thing for my family. Matthew's parents comment that Matthew like a good son, "prepared" his parents for his death and then slipped away to be no longer a burden, relieving his parents of making the life or death choice by pulling the remaining plugs.
It is the richness of the language along with accomplished acting that makes this "play" so effective. It shows some heroes - "angels singing loudly to drown out the extremist right minister - some very undecided but fair citizens - wondering why other deaths do not obtain such coverage - and what has come to be seen as the usual blind bigots who condemn Matthew to prove that, "Hate is not a Laramie Value." The priest saw it best when he said you do as close to the truth as you can. They have not martyred Matthew, but told the story of his death. You can make him a martyr if you need to.
The play's message seems to be that Hope as well as Hate are something learned and shared. If you want to see the current Hate making the rounds, look at all the good people as they develop their new rational slant on foreigners, especially foreigners who have strange mideastern accents. It is difficult for them to hear the possibility of Hope when there is fear at their doorstep.
As for Hope, I am on the lookout for it and I will try to read a Jamaica Kincaid novel this week.