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Wednesday, September 27, 2023
The skill of the University Theatre players makes this play as inspiring a call in 2018 as it was in 2000, and one that many in our society would do well to heed.

The skill of the University Theatre players makes this play as inspiring a call in 2018 as it was in 2000, and one that many in our society would do well to heed.

?‘Laramie Project’ challenges audience to find empathy in the face of prejudice

At a time when our political climate is as divided as ever, where a comedian’s routine at an otherwise unremarkable Washington, D.C. dinner can spark days longs wars between adversaries on social media, empathy is often in short supply.

University Theatre’s sterling and powerful performance of “The Laramie Project,” directed by Drew Sutherland, attempts to re-inject empathy back into the equation. The play, originally penned in 2000 by Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theatre Project in New York, takes place in the Big Sky town of Laramie, Wyoming after the savage beating death of a gay University of Wyoming student, Matthew Shepard.

Consisting of cast members reading verbatim interviews with town residents, key witnesses to the crime and local leaders, the play centers around who is culpable in Shepard’s death — a hate crime fueled by his status as an openly gay man.

The cast was a mere nine members, far fewer than the number of people portrayed on stage, meaning that each actor played numerous roles. The result is often disorienting for the audience, as they have to grapple with one actor, Patrick Collins, forced to skillfully evolve from a homophobic resident of Laramie to a limousine driver sympathetic to Shepard to a key witness in the trial of the two perpetrators.

The key question the play confronts changes as quickly as the roles played by the actors. Virtually all of the problems probed in “The Laramie Project” will remain familiar to viewers in an era where mass shootings, hate crimes and the havoc they wreck on communities are as prevalent as they were in 1998 when Shepard was beaten. Is the community responsible for producing hateful individuals? Should there be forgiveness of perpetrators? And what role do religion, the media and lawmakers play in promoting healing?

The last question is at issue in one of the play’s most poignant scenes where Ryan Scheffler, portraying the doctor charged with treating a comatose Shepard, gives a series of emotional updates on the patient’s condition to a room full of information-hungry media members. Lighting only heightens the sense of drama as the play marches towards the inevitable conclusion — Shepard’s death — with a series of more desperate pleas to news reporters for privacy. It is difficult to leave the theatre without a new perspective on how we, the public, consume news coverage of tragedies.

The play builds to a crescendo until one of the final scenes where the decision is to be made on the fate of one of the perpetrators, Aaron McKinney, who has been convicted and, potentially, sentenced to death. Shepard’s father, played by Scheffler, takes the stage with a moving, human reflection as to whether he wishes McKinney be given the death penalty. Aided by an imposing set (which often times was too imposing) inspired by the wooden fences where Shepard was tied to and left for dead, the audience hangs on every word as Scheffler begins speaking.

Of course he wishes McKinney be put to death, the aged Shepard says, but he agrees to ask the judge to sentence his son’s murderer to life in prison in honor of his son.

“I give you life in honor of one who no longer lives,” Shepard reads. “May you have a long life, and may you thank Matthew every day for it.”

Like the final scene, the play underscores compassion but does not attempt to rid the nuance that should be afforded to the hateful rhetoric, which was sadly all too pervasive in 1998 and still all too pervasive now. It instead challenges all viewers to look within themselves, and within their own communities, to find empathy and understanding in the face of prejudice. The skill of the University Theatre players makes this play as inspiring a call in 2018 as it was in 2000, and one that many in our society would do well to heed.

May we all have long lives. And may we all thank Matthew Shepard for showing us, in life and in death, what we must to do to make the lives of others better.

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