The hate crime that was the brutal 1998 murder of 21-year-old University Of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard brought playwright Moisés Kaufman and fellow members of New York’s Tectonic Theater Project to the town of Laramie in search of answers. Who could have committed such a barbaric act (and why?) … and how did the residents of Laramie react to Shepard’s murder, and to the attention it focused on their city of 28,000?

The result of Kaufman and his team’s* eighteen-month research was The Laramie Project, which Los Angeles audiences got their first look at when the Colony Theatre Company staged it to memorable effect in 2002.

Ten years after their initial visits, Kaufman and the Tectonics returned to Laramie to find out how much the city and its residents had changed in the ensuing decade, the result of which is The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later.

Orange County’s award-winning Chance Theater now presents both plays in rep, offering Southern California audiences the rare opportunity to see not only where we were at the time of Matthew’s murder, but also how far we’ve come since then, and assuming Oanh Nguyen’s staging of the original is as powerful as the sequel reviewed here (as I’m certain it must be), then Angelinos and Orange County residents alike are in for a humdinger of a double feature.

297997_10151510326131877_141576275_n 10 Years Later’s first act follows the Tectonic troupe back to Laramie where they discover many positive changes (there’s at least one openly gay state legislator, an annual AIDS walk, and even “Drag Queen Bingo” fundraisers) but also a disturbingly revisionist view of Matthew’s murder, whom many younger residents now believe was either a drug deal gone bad or a robbery that just got “out of control,” due in part to an episode of 20/20 which, though disproved by both trial evidence and statements made by Matt’s killers, continues to exert its insidious hold.

935140_10151510460411877_962548282_n Act One is but a prelude for The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later’s dynamo of a second act, one which gives us a suspenseful Wyoming House Of Representatives debate and vote on a proposed gay marriage-banning amendment to the state constitution, prison interviews with convicted killers Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, and the profoundly moving words of Judy Shepard, who has striven to make her son’s death a catalyst for social and legislative change in the United States.

Director extraordinaire Nguyen has taken a script made up only of its characters’ spoken words and transformed it into a striking piece of dramatic theater, working in collaboration with his eight outstanding actors (who convince us that they are many entirely distinct characters played by the Tectonic Project originals) and a design team who make The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later look as thrilling as it plays.

Chance Theater company members Jocelyn A. Brown, Erika C. Miller, and Karen Webster do some of the finest work in their years, including a number of gender-bending turns, and more recent company arrival David McCormick matches his Chance colleagues of longer standing in excellence.

59641_10151511660726877_1099312357_n Brown (as Tectonic member/Laramie Project co-writer Leigh Fondakowski) makes a strong impression as (among others) now-retired police officer Reggie Fluty, still haunted by the discovery of Matthew’s beaten body, and lead investigator Officer Dave O’Malley, who in the years since the murder has turned from self-avowed homophobe to someone “180 degrees different.”

Miller (Kelli Simpkins) couldn’t be more memorable as UW domestic partner benefits advocate Zackie Salmon, as Matt’s friends Jim and Romaine, the latter of whom believes that “by talking about Matthew, good things happen, good change is happening,” and as a conservative Wyoming legislator whose very personal connection to a member of the LGBT community transformed her views on gay and lesbian people.

936256_10151511977411877_1006170444_n Webster (Amanda Bronich) is a powerhouse as always as assorted moms and grandmoms, a teenage UW student, and most indelibly, as Matthew’s mother Judy Shepard, radicalized by her son’s murder into impassioned social activist in her quest for federal hate-crimes legislation.

McCormick (Stephen Belber) is impressive as (among others) Jeffrey Lockwood, who believes that the self-reflection provoked by Matthew’s murder was “ just too frightening [because] the Matthew Shepard murder flies in the face of who we are, the story we’ve told ourselves,” and as Belber himself, whose illuminating prison one-on-one with Russell Henderson is an Act Two centerpiece.

The remaining foursome either return to the Chance or make dynamite Chance debuts.

384505_10151512083091877_858632459_n Karen O’Hanlon (Barbara Pitts) is terrific as UW professor (and author of Losing Matthew Shepard) Beth Loffreda, who can’t tell the story of the past ten years “without having to think about both what we’ve done, but also what we haven’t done,” as Laramie Boomerang newspaper editor Deb Thomsen, who insists that “Laramie is a community, not a project,” and most memorably as UW theater professor-turned-openly gay Wyoming lawmaker Catherine Connolly, who discovered both expected foes and unexpected friends when an anti-gay constitutional amendment came up for vote in the Wyoming House Of Representatives.

A passionate Robert Foran plays Kaufman himself, in addition to Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal, Matt’s father Dennis, Greg Silber (producer of that heinous 20/20 report), Father Roger (whose intervention made prison interviews with the killers possible), UW professor John Dorst, and Republican representative Peterson, whose “pro-family” rhetoric is as hard to stomach at the Chance as it was for Connolly to have to hear in the anti-gay amendment debate.

Finally, there are the extraordinary pair of actors whose roles include those of Matthew Shepard’s two convicted killers.

484452_10151511830261877_1943600060_n Brandon Sean Pearson (Andy Paris) is shattering as the still hate-speaking Aaron McKinney, his face transformed by repressed rage and resentment that belie any remorse he professes to feel “for all the wrong reasons.” Pearson also impresses as Matt Mickelson, who owned the bar where Matt met Aaron and Russell that fateful October night, as Laramie native-turned-New York actor Jedediah Shultz, and as UW Law School Dean Jerry Parkinson.

Perhaps most fortunate of all in his acting assignments is a standout James McHale, who as Tectonic actor Greg Pierotti not only gets to interview Pearson’s McKinney, but makes for a heartbreakingly real Russell Henderson in his interview with McCormick’s Belber. McHale also shines as openly gay Laramie resident Jonas Slonaker and as Shepard murder investigator Rob DuBree.

408611_10151510400741877_2116292748_n Scenic designer Fred Kinney has created a striking, deceptively simple set which turns out to be much more than just walls, lights, and eight chairs (which director Nguyen and company manipulate with endless ingenuity). KC Wilkerson’s lighting and Ryan Brodkin’s sound design combine impressively to up the dramatic ante, with Joe Holbrook’s video design transporting us to the Laramie plains and other locales. Design kudos go also to costumer Erika C. Miller and prop master Jules Fugett, with additional praise due dialect coach Glenda Morgan Brown, dramaturg Skyler Gray, and stage manager Courtny Greenough.

Meghan McCarthy is assistant scenic designer, Jake Soto assistant lighting designer, Vincent Quan assistant video designer, Kimberly Kocol assistant costume designer, Nicole Salimbeni assistant stage manager, Teodora Ramos master carpenter, Casey Long managing director, Masako Tobaru production manager and technical director, Jeff Hellebrand box office associate, and Jennifer Ruckman literary manager.

Time constraints prevented this reviewer from catching The Laramie Project, and truth be told, The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later stands quite strongly on its own, with only the basic facts of the Matthew Shepard needed for full appreciation.

On the other hand, those with a pair of evenings or time for a weekend double feature (Parts 1 and 2 are presented back-to-back on both Saturdays and Sundays) would do well to make it a matched set of Laramie Projects. As anyone who’s experienced a Chance Theater production (and particularly one directed by Oanh Nguyen) can tell you, you won’t have a finer intimate theater experience in the OC than at the Chance.

*including The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later co-writers Leigh Fondakowski, Greg Pierotti, Andy Paris, and Stephen Belber

The Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.

–Steven Stanley
April 24, 2013

Comments are closed.