Matthew Shepard, 21, was a student at the University of Wyoming. He was gay. He was beaten to death in Laramie. His murderers were townies. Affected by the heinous hate crime and the images broadcast nationally, Moisés Kaufman and members of his Tectonic Theater Project went to Laramie and conducted 200 interviews with the town's residents over the next 18 months. Kaufman and his troupe became curators, editors, and playwrights of the material, weaving it together with letters written by Shepard's parents and statements made by the perpetrators. The result is an immensely affecting theatrical tapestry.
The work is important as a historical account, a social narrative, and gripping theatrical art. Though he is never incarnate, Shepard is a palpable presence in all three acts. The number of characters, the lack of a traditional protagonist, and the work's multiple viewpoints may bother some viewers. However, Kaufman, who also wrote Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, is not in the business of traditional realism but rather in the exploration of theatrical language and form.
Eight members of the original company here play more than 43 roles. The ensemble is Stephen Belber, Amanda Gronich, Mercedes Herrero, John McAdams, Andy Paris, Greg Pierotti, Barbara Pitts, and Kelli Simkins. Among the characters brought to vibrant life are Jedediah Schultz (Paris), who bucks parental displeasure to play in UW's Angels in America; Aaron Kreifels (Simpkins), the UW freshman who discovers the comatose Shepard tied to a fence outside town, and Shepard's father (McAdams), who reads the parents' profoundly moving letter to the court during the penalty phase of the trial. Robert Brill creates an airy, serviceable set suggestive of wide expanse. He is aided by costume designer Moe Schell, lighting designer Betsy Adams, sound designer Matthew Spiro, and video and slide designer Martha Swetzoff.
This production never demeans the townsfolk or their views. It merely presents the truth and allows the observer to think, to feel, perhaps to judge, and hopefully to look inward and conclude that we are all responsible for Laramie.
"The Laramie Project," presented by La Jolla Playhouse, in association with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, at the Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Village Dr. and Torrey Pines Rd., La Jolla. July 31-Sept. 2. (858) 550-1010.