It seems unbelievable that 15 years after the brutal murder of Mathew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming – and 14 years after the play “The Laramie Project” exposed the aftermath and societal currents behind that murder – the Tacoma theater community is only just now getting a production of the play. This powerful sounding of how this small Wyoming town – and by extension, our whole society – dealt with extreme homophobia and violence has become one of America’s most produced plays, and a college staple (University of Puget Sound did a student show in 2003; Pacific Lutheran University did it in 2005; South Puget Sound Community College did the “Ten Years Later” epilogue in 2010). But the Tacoma Little Theatre production that’s closing this weekend (three more shows) is, according to director Brie Yost, a first for the Tacoma community as a whole – and as such, it’s both well done and long overdue.
“Laramie” isn’t an easy play, on many counts. It’s popular, yes, thanks to the multi-role, multi-member cast that gives especially students a broad shot at many characters, and obviously thanks to the message. Compiled from interviews, court records and experiences taken down by members of New York’s Tectonic Theater Project just months after Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming, was brutally beaten, tied to a fence and left to die, it’s a grippingly honest piece of theater that, even 15 years later, asks disturbing questions.
But it’s that honesty that also makes it difficult, both for the actors who are at once asked to act and to confront their own reality and for the audience, who are confronted with all the failings of our society. With the nine actors playing up to 11 roles each in a script of monologues, it’s difficult to keep relationship and tension. And for the company itself, it’s apparently still a controversial programming choice in a town where many theaters rely on musicals for bread-and-butter. Yost says, in her notes, that a colleague warned her that “Tacoma is not ready for ‘The Laramie Project.’”
Well, if last Friday’s half-full house and post-show Q&A was anything to go by, Tacoma’s more than ready, and kudos to TLT for being the community theater that brings such a thoughtful production of “Laramie” to town.
While the first half was way too fast-paced – the breathless delivery obviously Yost’s way of dealing with narrative static – and while the entire show was backgrounded with irritatingly repetitive atmospheric music, the cast was, on the whole, stellar. Throwing roles on and off as easily as their one-prop shirts or hats, the actors dived deep into the personae of Tectonic actors and the Laramie folks surrounding the murder. Highlights were Jefri Peters, passionate and likeable as an excited theater professor, morally doubtable stoner or efficient cop; and Jen Aylsworth as a host of local yokels with chutzpah; the two combined hilariously as a mother-daughter duo. Tiffani Pike gave a wary intensity to Shepard’s best friend and activist, and the boy who found his near-dead body. Mike Cooper shone, whether as the wonderfully campy bartender, the bright-eyed college student or sullen murderer Aaron McKinney; while Mark Peterson was convincing as the brash hospital CEO or Baptist pastor. Marty Mackenzie’s old-geezer act was a little odd in both the taxi driver and Catholic priest roles, and Jeremy Thompson was too stiff as the authority figures; but his monologue as Shepard’s father was heartfelt, and Russ Coffey added quiet support in all roles.
Some clever production tricks from Yost filled out the stage: a minimalist gray-plank set brought a stark modernism, TV screens allowed four-angle news interviews (though the static later was distracting) and the face-forward confrontation was softened by more intimate blocking as relationships developed.
By the second half, when Shepard’s hospital death is juxtaposed with the murder trial and the complex reactions of the town – from homophobic redneck to death-dealing religious to gay-lesbian activist – Yost’s cast had settled down the speed and inhabited their characters more fully to create a perfectly timed flow.
And after each show, TLT director Chris Serface has committed to a Q&A between cast and audience, which on Friday also included two local pastors – a smart move that connected Laramie’s shocking past with Tacoma’s present.
Mathew Shepard may have been murdered 15 years ago. But hate crimes and homophobia continue, even in Tacoma, dubbed America’s most gay-friendly town. That Tacoma Little Theatre has the courage to remind us of this and challenge us to action exemplifies what theater does best, in a skillful and powerful production. Tell your friends.
“The Laramie Project” runs 7:30 p.m. June 21 and 22, 2 p.m. June 23. $9.50. Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 N. I St., Tacoma. 253-272-2281, tacomalittletheatre.com