Nevada Rep examines the emotions of a small town after a brutal murder
In the film It’s a Wonderful Life, guardian angel Clarence says, “Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” As a nation, we felt the meaning of this phrase intensely in October 1998, when we learned that gay college student Matthew Shepard had been beaten, tied to a fence and left for dead in Laramie, Wyo.
In a world full of daily horrors, what was it about Shepard’s death that inspired so many vigils, so many protests and outpourings of love and grief? That’s what Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Troupe wanted to know when they traveled from to New York to Laramie and conducted more than 200 interviews with members of the community—interviews that would form a play, and now a movie, called The Laramie Project.
“In the days that followed the murder, you couldn’t open a newspaper or turn on the TV without seeing a picture of Matthew, or at least seeing the event,” Kaufman told OutSmart magazine. “For some reason, this one resonated.”
Though it’s been three and a half years since that fateful night, Matthew Shepard’s story is still resonating in the hearts and minds of Americans. The movie version of The Laramie Project premiered on HBO March 9. (Another movie, The Matthew Shepard Story, will air on NBC March 16.) The stage version of The Laramie Project is being presented by theater companies across the country, including the Nevada Repertory Company at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Nevada Rep, under the direction of Jim Bernardi, handles The Laramie Project with the talent and earnestness I’ve come to expect from this group. In the absence of elaborate staging—segments of the play use no props or set pieces at all—all of your focus is directed to the actors and their ability to bring multiple characters to life. Not one of the eight Nevada Rep actors can be singled out as a weak link, and many of them produce characters that are fascinating to watch and listen to.
Nevada Rep mainstay Bradford Ka’ai’ai is his usual wonderful self, infusing his characters with an emotional honesty that is often painful to watch. When Ka’ai’ai portrays a Catholic priest, you can feel the intensity of the opposing feelings pulling on the clergyman’s heart: the belief that homosexuality is wrong in the eyes of God, but also the intense compassion felt for a fellow human being. Ka’ai’ai’s portrayal of the CEO of Poudre Valley Hospital, where Shepard died after several days in critical condition, is even more compelling.
Simon Marx blew me away in his portrayal of the cyclist who discovered Shepard tied to that infamous fence, a person who is haunted by memories of that day and struggles to find peace. Marx’s turn as a college theater major, who is forced to re-examine his whole life’s values in the wake of the incident, was as real and touching as anything I’ve seen on stage.
Compliments are also in order for Gary Metzger, who impressed me with his versatility and consistency, as did Kevin M. Sak. But as I said earlier, not one of the actors gave a weak performance, and the standing ovation they received the night I attended was earned.