True crime

The Laramie Project

Rated 5.0 River Stage isn’t the first in town to mount The Laramie Project; there was a student production at California State University, Sacramento, and a production by the interns at the B Street Theatre, and a third is coming up at the University of California, Davis.

But, for our purposes, this is the first full-scale, local production of this important play. And it comes as no surprise that artistic director Frank Condon—a first-class artist who’s built an enviable reputation for producing high-quality shows that resonate with social issues, such as Gunfighter: A Gulf War Chronicle, Chicago Conspiracy Trail, How I Learned to Drive and Ghost Dance—is the one who’s done it. As Condon once said, “If you don’t ask some tough questions … what’s the point?”

The Laramie Project is a big, extended mosaic of a play—a compilation of cameos involving five dozen characters—focused on a horrifying incident that took place in 1998 in Laramie, Wyo. Matthew Shepard, a college student and Wyoming native, was beaten senseless, tied to a fence and left to die. His offense: being gay.

Laramie is a small university town, half the size of Davis or Chico, in a sparsely populated state. People knew the victim and the killers. Playwright Moisés Kaufman drew on 200 interviews with townsfolk, combined with testimony from the trial, to create a script that deals frankly with the tragedy and why it happened. The answers are neither simple nor easy. The plain authenticity of the words is compelling, even though we know we’re seeing a play.

In creating a mosaic, it takes a little time for the larger pattern to emerge. That’s how it is with this show. We’re exposed to many recurrent viewpoints in bits and chunks, which form a panorama when taken together. Condon makes it look simple—eight actors and sparse staging—but it’s actually incredibly complex. There are a phenomenal number of character changes, and lighting and sound cues. The Laramie Project has two intermissions and runs two-and-a-half hours (quite a contrast to the fast-paced, 75-minute, no-intermission shows elsewhere in town), but not a minute is wasted.

Cast members Gabriel Montoya, Julie Anchor, David Campfield, Kristine David, Ed Gyles Jr., Ashlyn Kei, Peter Mohrman and Shaleen Shmutzer each have moments to shine. The best is Mohrman’s stunning speech as Shepard’s mourning father toward the end of the play. It was one of the most moving, intensely spoken monologues I’d witnessed in quite a while.