On Oct. 6, 1998, a homosexual college student named Matthew Shepard was violently beaten, robbed, tied to a fence and abandoned. Eighteen hours later, he was found unconscious by a rural stretch of road in the small town of Laramie, Wyo., and died shortly afterward. Although this hardly sounds like ideal material for a play, "The Laramie Project" is an extraordinary play about ordinary people trying to make sense of a senseless crime.
The brainchild of Moisés Kaufman, "The Laramie Project" is a series of vignettes constructed from the journal entries of Kaufman and his associates, and real interviews with the inhabitants of Laramie.
Thirty-three South County students portrayed over 50 characters with depth, sensitivity and maturity that belied their age. The cast showed commendable versatility in playing multiple roles of different genders, ages, beliefs and personalities. Particularly strong was Kyle O’Connor, who portrayed a gay man, a hateful bigot, and, most notably, Shepard’s grief-stricken father. O’Connor’s Dennis Shepard was chillingly convincing, fluctuating between hope and hatred with genuine emotion.
Also remarkable was Kevin Lutz, who took on the personas of a Unitarian minister, a wisecracking limousine driver and Shepard’s attacker, with chameleon-like ease. Lutz’s strong stage presence and characteristic mannerisms made him the focus of the show whenever he was onstage.
Jodie Awudetsey delivered a wonderful performance as the chain-smoking, plainspoken Marge, both hilariously funny and touchingly poignant in her interactions with her policewoman daughter, played by Samantha Franklin.
Taimur Sohrab gave consistently subtle, masterful performances, and Erin Van Houten deftly handled her double role as comical Alison Mears and thoughtful Muslim university student Zubaida Ula. Ally Barrale’s hospital CEO handled many of the show’s most emotional moments with great strength. The majority of the cast played their roles with deep conviction, though a few actors occasionally lacked commitment to their characters.
The show’s technical design was extremely ambitious and creative, using video-projection screens designed by Brent Martin to connect the many scenes. The set, designed by Sarah Stephens, Chelsea Chansen and Samantha Schaefer, was simple but very effective, and scene transitions were quick. The sound team, led by Josh Wiredu, created sound effects that enhanced the performance without being too distracting, and Justin Alderson and Nathan Thomas’ lighting contributed excellently to the mood of the play. Timing of tech cues was sometimes awkward, but for the most part went smoothly.
Although skillfully executed, "The Laramie Project" is much more than a spectacle for showcasing talented actors and techs. Its powerful emotional resonance was evident on the face of each audience member leaving the performance. Appropriate for a play about a life-changing event, "The Laramie Project" aims to change the way its audience thinks. South County’s unforgettable production may have accomplished that goal.