On October 6th, 1998, Matthew Shepard went into the Fireside Inn in Laramie, Wyoming to have a few beers. Little did he know, that would be the last night he would ever do this. That night, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney brutally beat Matthew because he was gay. They left him for dead tied to a fence.
Eighteen hours later, a runner found Matthew and notified authorities. When Matthew was found, he was practically covered in blood except for his face where his tears had washed the blood away. Matthew passed away six days later from his injuries. In November of 1998, Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project made their first trip to Laramie to talk with the residents and Matthew’s friends and family about these tragic events. They made a second trip to conduct more interviews concluding almost a year after Matthew’s death. The transcripts from these interviews were combined to create The Laramie Project which is being presented at Peninsula Community Theatre through October 21st.
Photo credit Mike Diana
The Laramie Project was directed by Jennifer Thomas with assistance from Zach Burgess. Ms. Thomas did a phenomenal job bringing this story to life on stage. Her staging provides beautiful visuals that allows audience members to get a glimmer of what it might have been like to experience what the members of Tectonic had when interviewing the people of Laramie, visiting the places Matthew went and going to “The Fence” where Matthew was found. The imagery that Ms. Thomas created added to the already beautiful language that is provided by the script. It is a challenging job for any director to stage a show where eight actors portray upwards of 60+ characters but Ms. Thomas did a wonderful job in bringing this production to life and bringing to light a story that is still prevalent in our world twenty years later.
The most amazing technical aspect of this production was the stunningly beautiful set designed by Allen B. Wheaton. When you walk into the theatre you were greeted by the smell of wood and a beautiful designed set that gives depth to such a small space. Mr. Wheaton’s design made it feel like Peninsula Community Theatre’s stage is the size of any Broadway Theatre. Side panels create wings for the actors to hide costumes and props that they needed to tell their story. The back “wall” of the set consisted of window frames in different directions and angles. This design raises the bar for future sets in our community. The Lighting Design by John Foster was mostly effective in providing atmosphere for the production but was almost a hindrance in the first few minutes of the production. Constant light changes detracted from the actors’ performances and almost dictated where the actors were supposed to be instead of illuminating them within their movement. It felt like a strobe light that was not working up to speed. This eventually eased but popped up again at the end of the production. The Sound Design by Austin Wydrzynski was appropriate for the show, I just wish I could have heard more of the pre-show music. It was so faint in the space that I found myself trying to figure out if there was actually music playing or if someone’s phone was going off in their pocket. Overall, the most effective technical element of the show was the set designed by Mr. Wheaton.
Photo credit Mike Diana
The Laramie Project was an ensemble piece that consists of eight actors portraying sixty plus characters. This is a challenge for any ensemble let alone a single performer. The eight performers in the production are William Belvin, Brian Cebrian, Carly Murray, Carla Mutone, Connor Norton, Missy Sullivan, Steven Suskin and Ashley Zadel. The ensemble did an effective job with such a challenging piece of theatre; however, there are two standouts that deserve as much praise that can be showered upon them. First, was the brilliant performance of Connor Norton. Mr. Norton moves seamlessly from one character to another and was riveting to watch as he provided subtle nuances making each character different in his body and voice. For a production, that required each performer to have such distinctly different characters; Mr. Norton was a phenomenal example of how to make something so difficult look so easy. The second was Brian Cebrian. Mr. Cebrian was captivating to watch as someone who took a simple costume piece as a sweater or a coat and used it to help accentuate his character instead of making it all about the costume piece. Mr. Cebrian is a wonderful example of an actor who commits himself to something outside of his comfort zone and successfully knocks his performance out of the park. A final mention is for William Belvin who was clearly enjoying bringing each of his characters to life on stage. The only thing that kept Mr. Belvin from being in a top three is there were times when he was talking too fast and it was hard to understand what he was saying. This ensemble; lead by Mr. Norton and Mr. Cebrian, was successful in bringing this beautiful story and wonderful characters to life.
The Laramie Project was a piece that helped give a voice to a terrible tragedy that happened in our country twenty years ago. Many would argue that this story is no longer relevant but, in all actuality, it is and is more relevant in the last two years than it was eight years before that. When rights for the LGBT community are getting reversed and glossed over every day, performances and productions like this one at Peninsula Community Theatre need to be performed and seen. “The Laramie Project” ran through October 21 and if you didn’t make it out to see it, you can still donate to The Matthew Shephard Foundation.
The Laramie Project and other great performances can be found at the Peninsula Community Theatre.