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‘Project’ retells impact of Laramie gay murder

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During the first week of October 1998, an incident occurred that changed the world's perception of Laramie, Wyo.

Before then, it was known by history buffs as one of the major frontier railroad towns of the early West. In the mid-50s, James Stewart starred in "The Man From Laramie," typical of the "cowboy" movies of the period.

But sometime on the night of Oct. 6, 1998 — or the wee hours of Oct. 7 — a young University of Wyoming student was kidnapped, robbed, fatally beaten and left for dead, tied to a barbed-wire fence just a mile out of town.

The brutal, senseless murder of Matthew Shepard, who was gay, threw the quiet, laid-back community into the center of a media feeding-frenzy. Broadcast and print journalists from across the country seized on the "hate-crime" aspects of Shepard's death.

One month after Shepard died, renowned playwright Moises Kaufman (author of "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde," one of the most-produced regional productions in the past couple of years) brought a group from his Tectonic Theater Project to Laramie to conduct more than 200 interviews with a cross section of Laramie's residents.

This in-depth research eventually evolved into "The Laramie Project," an "Our Town"-like drama with nearly 2 1/2 hours of dialogue drawn from the journals and files compiled by Kaufman's actors/writers. The group traveled from New York to Laramie six times over the next 18 months, until the play was ready for its "workshop" premiere at the prestigious Denver Center Theatre.

This week, Salt Lake City's Plan-B Theatre Company will be among the smallest of the country's theater troupes to stage "The Laramie Project." It plays July 18-Aug. 12 in the Chapel Theatre, a venue leased by Plan-B from Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North.

Kaufman's own Tectonic Theatre Company staged a successful off-Broadway run, and a more recent production, directed by Kaufman by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, has just been extended. An HBO version of the drama is now in production.

Jerry Rapier, who is directing Plan-B's regional premiere, noted during an interview that another production, in La Jolla, Calif., was presented in tandem with a production of Thornton Wilder's 1938 classic, "Our Town."

"The Laramie Project" is structured like "Our Town" — brief vignettes based on true-life people. All of the dialogue in the production comes from tape-recorded interviews with other students and Laramie citizens — ministers, waitresses, people from all walks of life — who saw the identity of their hometown change virtually overnight. Their comments provide insights into the crime.

Shepard himself is not a character in the drama, but there are scenes involving his killers.

Shepard died on Oct. 10, 1998, in a Fort Collins, Colo., hospital, without regaining consciousness. Four suspects were later charged — two directly with the kidnapping, robbery and murder, and two others with being accessories. The fact that Shepard was attacked due to his sexual orientation was well-documented as the case proceeded. One of the leading suspects ultimately pleaded guilty and is serving two consecutive life terms in prison without parole. The other was found guilty during a jury trial, and is serving the same sentence.

One of the actors in the Plan-B Theatre Company cast is Jedediah Schultz — a UW student who was also among those interviewed by the Kaufman team. A theater major who has one semester to go, Schultz not only plays himself in "The Laramie Project" but eight other characters as well, including Aaron McKinney, one of the perpetrators, and Matt Michelson, owner of the Fireside Bar, where Shepard was a customer the night he was kidnapped.

Another of the citizens in the play, Harry Woods (played by Carl Nelson), will be in Salt Lake City on Sunday, July 29, to participate in a post-matinee panel discussion.

The eight-member cast of "The Laramie Project" also includes Joyce Cohen, Charles Lynn Frost, Kirt Bateman, Anita Booher, Colleen Baum and Cheryl Cluff. All play from seven to 10 characters, plus narrators and journalists.

Rapier said there is no agenda in Kaufman's play. Comments on various aspects of the murder, including the religious and social issues surrounding Shepard's homosexuality, are evenly presented, he said, and there's no "preaching." "There's no central character, and this is a huge challenge for the actors. These are 'snapshots' of 60 different people."

Part of Plan-B's mission is to engage the audience's imagination as much as possible. The scenery is minimal. For "The Laramie Project" there are eight chairs and a bench, with a backdrop depicting the Wyoming landscape. "We want to focus on the people," Rapier said.

Schultz compares the situation today in Laramie to that of Waco, Texas, site of a controversial 1993 siege by the FBI on the Branch Davidian compound. "This murder now defines what people think about Laramie, which has been unfairly labeled as a place that breeds intolerance," said Schultz. "In the play, we meet people who live in Laramie. They're not stereotypes. Salt Lake City has the same thing, but in a different way, with labeling and branding that constantly comes out."

Cheryl Ann Cluff, managing director and a founder of Plan-B Theatre Company, notes that "The Laramie Project" shows the variety of ways Shepard's murder affected people in the community. "People were touched on many levels," she said.

There is also quite a bit of reaction in the community from several religious leaders — Catholic, Baptist and LDS. (Doug Laws, an LDS stake leader in Laramie, comments on the church's stand on sexual morality, and then, toward the end of the play — during a brief section about Russell Henderson, who eventually pleaded guilty in the crime — there are comments by his family's LDS home teacher.)

As "The Laramie Project" explores the feelings and comments of Laramie's citizens, much of the dialogue is thought-provoking.

Dr. Cantway, who was working in the emergency room of a Laramie hospital, happened to work on both Shepard and one of his killers, McKinney, who were brought in 20 minutes apart (McKinney had been injured later that same evening in a fight after returning to town). But Cantway had no idea the two men were connected until two days later. "They were two kids! They were both my patients, and they were two kids. . . . For a brief moment I wondered if this is how God feels when he looks down at us. How we are all his kids. . . . Our bodies. . . . Our souls. . . . And I felt a great deal of compassion. . . . For both of them."

TICKETS for "The Laramie Project" are $15 for adults, $10 for students and $13 each for groups of 10 or more. Adult tickets (except for group sales) may be purchased through any ArtTix outlet, including by telephone — ArtTix at 355-2787 or 888-451-2787, or Salt Lake Acting Company at 363-7522 or online at www.arttix.org. Student tickets are available only in person at any ArtTix outlet. Group sales are conducted only at ArtTix's Capitol Theatre box office. Performances will be in SLAC's Chapel Theatre (not the Downstairs Theatre, which was previously Plan-B's venue). Performances are 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays.

E-mail: ivan@desnews.com