Many plays, novels, and films that seek to convey a “message” come off as heavy-handed, “preachy,” and rather boring. This is not the case with “The Laramie Project,” Stage West’s production that premieres this weekend.
The play’s author is Moisés Kaufman, a member of the Tectonic Theatre Project in New York City. He led a group of actors that visited the town of Laramie, Wyoming, shortly after the brutal beating of Matthew Shepard by two young men on October 6, 1998. Shepard died from his injuries six days later. The incident made headlines all around the world.
The theatre group interviewed the townspeople and got their perspectives on the incident. “The Laramie Project” resulted from these interviews, news reports, court transcripts, and other original material. The reactions and emotions of the people were diverse—from shock, anger and sadness to denial of the motives of the perpetrators and resentment of the negative publicity brought to the town.
This is the first play that Drew Hackworth has directed, and he deftly handles the challenge. There are just ten actors in the play, yet they play multiple roles. The stage set is simple, consisting of chairs, a podium, bales of hay, and a fence that depicts the place where Matthew was left to die by his killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson.
Hackworth has guided the actors in portraying the multiple characters in distinct ways, using changes in voice tone and mannerisms. All the actors are dressed in black, but during the play, they add various articles of clothing to distinguish the different characters: a doctor’s white coat, a cowboy hat, a scarf, etc. In the background, there are pictures of the actual town of Laramie projected on a screen.
20-year-old Brianna Spahn has five roles in the play. For someone who has had just four years’ experience in theatre it was a challenge that she enjoyed.
“The most rewarding thing about acting is that I like being able to explore the characters.”
Lily Sokolowski started singing and dancing when she was three years old. The 18-year-old has been in theatre for seven years, but this play had some unique challenges for her. “It’s hard trying to find different personalities and voices for each of them [the characters]. This play is one of my favorites because the message is so important to me.
Chris Rocanelli is not only an actor but also a fifth-grade teacher at Pinegrove Elementary School. He started a theatre program at the school and will be directing an upcoming production of “The Little Mermaid” with the students.
Rocanelli started acting in elementary school and then continued through middle and high school. “The storytelling aspect of theatre is what I really love. The most challenging part is that you have to ‘find’ the character you’re portraying because you don’t always get to choose the role. In this play, you have to ‘find’ nine different characters and make them all distinct.”
I have to admit that I was not overly excited to preview this play. With so much bad news in the world, I felt it would be depressing, and I wondered how they would be able to create a play from interviews with actual people with no real action. I assumed it would be somewhat like a documentary film—not that I don’t like documentaries.
Well, I was in for a surprise the moment the actors stepped on the stage. It’s a play that you watch intently because you don’t want to miss anything. I also enjoyed the humor and the realistic portrayal of the people. It was interesting and humorous to see the New Yorkers’ culture shock when they visited a small western town—from not knowing what “chicken fried steak” is to not understanding the term S.O.L.”
“The Laramie Project” has a number of themes. It portrays hope and the positive results that can come from something as horrendous as this brutal murder. It also explores the subtle difference between tolerance and acceptance. It was interesting to see the changes in some of the people that took place over the course of the six visits the theatre troupe made to the town in a year’s time.
One more theme that gives an uplifting tone to “The Laramie Project” is the remark that Aaron Kreifels (played by Mark Burdette) makes towards the end of the play. Aaron was the first person at the scene of the crime and found Shepard barely alive. It was a fluke that he was out there on that desolate prairie. Aaron comes to the realization that no matter how horrifying this experience was, he feels that God guided him to Matthew so that the young man wouldn’t die alone. Aaron’s experience offers an example of how religion can be a positive force to help people understand and process trauma.
There will only be three performances of “The Laramie Project.” It opens Friday, September 22, at 7:30 pm. There will be a Saturday performance at 7:30 pm and a show on Sunday at 2:00 pm.
You can purchase tickets at the door or online at www.stagewestflorida.com. You can also call the box office at 352-683-5113, but they are only open for limited hours. Stage West Playhouse is located at 8390 Forest Oaks Blvd. in Spring Hill.