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Laramie Theater Scope:
The Laramie Project

A stage play about Laramie not being Greenwich Village

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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March 12, 2000, updated October 12, 2001 -- "The Laramie Project" is an avant garde stage play, soon to be a made-for-TV-movie, dealing with the aftermath of the killing of a gay college student, Matthew Shepard, near Laramie in 1998. The play uses multimedia effects, including video, to dramatize the effect of worldwide media attention on a small town in the rural West. Unfortunately, the play (and the made-for-tv movie based on the play) have become part of that same relentless media onslaught.

The Tectonic Theatre Project production is based on over 200 interviews of Laramie area people. Tectonic's previous project, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, was about a gay man oppressed by a straight establishment. Robert Redford's Sundance Theatre Lab and the New York Theatre Workshop helped to organize the Laramie material. Three main characters stand out among the many in the play, Thomas E.J. "Doc" O'Connor of DOC's Western Village and Limousine service in Bosler, played by Stephen Belber; Marge Murray, played by Amanda Gronich and Father Roger Schmit, played by Greg Pierotti, who also plays Sgt. Robert Hing, Sgt. Rob DeBree and Rulon Stacey in the play.

All the actors play multiple parts in the play. The set decoration is sparse, a few chairs, a table, television sets drop from the ceiling depicting live scenes from the play as media invasions sweep over Laramie during the trials of the two main defendants, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. This part of the play is interesting as we see the actors on the stage in front of the camera playing the parts of television reporters. We also see their faces in the TV screens above the stage as the news coverage overlaps in a babble of dialogue. It is a pretty good depiction of the media madness during the trials.

A portion of McKinney's tape-recorded confession is played out before the audience. The theater is dark, except for one light, lowered from the ceiling, shining on the table where Rob DeBree is interviewing McKinney. Henderson and McKinney, pretending to be gay, lure Shepard into their truck and drive him to a spot outside of town and beat him and tie him to a buck fence and rob him.

After administering a severe beating to Shepard, McKinney, worried that Shepard will identify him, asks Shepard if he can read the truck's license plates. Shepard reads the plates. McKinney then administers the fatal blows. He is left tied to the fence, left to die.

Now that would seem to indicate premeditated, first degree murder. Although this isn't in the play, the jury found McKinney not guilty of first degree murder. The play does mention he was found guilty of a slightly lesser charge, felony murder. The defense, unable to use their "gay panic" defense during the trial, due to a feature of Wyoming law, could have used it as a mitigating argument in the penalty stage of the trial. The dead Matthew Shepard would have been put on trial at that point, something the Shepards did not want to go through.

A death penalty verdict from the same jury that had not found the elements for first degree murder was no sure thing. The Shepard family asked the prosecuting attorney, Cal Rerucha, to offer a plea bargain, two life sentences without parole, and McKinney took it. In the play, it comes out differently. The death penalty is portrayed as a sure thing and only the mercy of the Shepards stopped it. They gave mercy to a man who had shown no mercy at all to their son. That is the standard spin on things, but it is not entirely accurate. The play then goes on to talk gleefully about how the two young killers will be "auctioned" off, ostensibly for sodomy purposes inside prison, just deserts, indeed for Wyoming's most famous gay killers. In fact, killing gays is sometimes considered a "cool" crime by other prisoners, the killers may be respected in prison as much as they are hated by most people outside of prison.

Sgt. Hing and others often repeat the mantra that Laramie is a "good place to raise your kids," it is a place where "live and let live" is the motto. That is not good enough, according to the play. It is equated with the notion of standing by while others kill gays, much as the German populace stood by while Hitler slaughtered the Jews.

The homecoming parade, which happened shortly after the attack, became a rallying point for those opposed to those preaching hatred against gays. Some 500 people took up the march. One gay man in Laramie quoted in the play said he had waited a long time to see that. Sufferance is not enough, tolerance is not enough, gays want acceptance, approval and support. They want laws designed specifically to protect them from discrimination. At one point in the play, a character says, "Wyoming hasn't passed shit," referring to new laws tailored to protecting gays.

This, then, is the bottom line. It doesn't matter that people in Laramie have changed since the killing of Matthew Shepard. It doesn't matter that teachers and parents are teaching tolerance. Nothing else, it seems, matters. Did Matthew Shepard die for a hate crime law, or to advance a political agenda? Was it really a crucifixion, as the play suggests? It is a heavy-handed and unsubstantiated assertion. Is there any rational or factual connection between Shepard's death and hate crime legislation?

Marge Murray comes across as a loving mother in the play, although she does subscribe to the dreaded "live and let live" motto. She is worried that her daughter, Deputy Reggie Fluty, was exposed to the HIV virus while helping Matt Shepard. The fact that Shepard was infected with the virus was not something widely known. She is ecstatic when Fluty passes six months from the time of exposure with no sign of infection.

The colorful Doc O'Conner says there are plenty of gays in Wyoming, but a lot of them are tough cowboys and "they'll kick your ass" if you aren't careful. Father Schmit comes off as the lone religious crusader for tolerance, organizing rallies without consulting his bishop and with no support from his fellow pastors in Laramie. His character is seen and heard often in the play. It makes Laramie folks seem a little more colorful, if not rustic.

Sgt. Rob DeBree comes across favorably as a hard-working and caring officer who wants an air-tight case. He wants a conviction for the Shepards, for whom he has great sympathy. A college student in the play reveals an interesting point about the religious side of the anti-gay sentiment. He talks about how his parents will not support his decision to play the part of a gay man in a drama. Later, when he plays a major part in a Shakespearian play, they do support him. He confronts them with the fact that the Shakespearian character he played is a murderer. Why did the boy's parents have no problem with him playing a murderer, but where appalled by him playing a gay? They cite religion as their objection to him playing a gay, but clearly, there is more than religion at the base of their objections.

The funeral scenes, with a rain falling on stage, into a specially-designed grate, are highly effective. Along with some of the trial scenes, they highlight the tragedy of parents having to bury their child and the grief they feel at such a senseless death. Every year, too many parents have to suffer this grief. The reasons for it may differ, a childhood disease, an accident, a stray bullet, suicide, murder, it doesn't matter, the loss is devastating. Most of these deaths go relatively unnoticed by the public at large. But once it a while one group or another tries to use such an incident to grab a political advantage. Matthew Shepard's death was one (gay rights), the Columbine killings were another (gun control). I wonder if the parents of those killed would rather be left alone, or if they cherish the role of spokesman for (or against) the cause of the moment? Judy Shepard, Matthew's mother, seems to feel her son's death has given her the opportunity to make a difference, to speak out for more tolerance.

There are a lot of interesting characters in the play, thoughtful, caring people with differing ideas. As a long-time resident of Laramie, I saw people on the stage who are familiar, others who are not. As far as authenticity goes, I thought the biggest problem was the accents. There is a Wyoming accent of sorts, but it is a lot more subtle than a southern accent, and what you hear in the play are mostly southern accents. As an attempt to portray the people of Laramie, it doesn't get very deep into the town, but it does get its foot in the door.

This play stands almost alone in actually addressing the role of the Christian religion as the basis for some people's homophobia. We have the very anti-gay Rev. Fred Phelps, and the anti-gay minister from Laramie quoted in the play, but we also have Father Schmit and other local religious leaders on the opposite side of the issue. Of all the hundreds of thousands of words written about the death of Matthew Shepard, this play is the only treatment of the subject that I've seen to hit the religious issue head-on. It is a touchy, divisive issue within many churches, including the Roman Catholic Church and several major Protestant denominations. You have to give the Tectonic Theater Project credit for having the guts to take on religious issue.

Laramie, Wyoming, it is not New York City, or Greenwich Village, or Broadway, or San Francisco, for that matter. This is the startling revelation I got from the play. I say this satirically of course. Everyone knows it isn't the same. Yet, in trying to depict the differences between a small town in the West and major metropolitan areas, in trying to define this town, by those differences and by one tragic death, the play misses the whole point about the deadly relationship between gays and straights in the United States. The fact that hate crimes against gays are widespread is chillingly portrayed in the documentary film "Licensed to Kill" by Arthur Dong.

This review was done after seeing the play in its first run at the Ricketson Theatre in Denver, Colo., prior to its off-broadway stint at the Union Square Theater on E. 17th St. in New York and it's eventual performance in Laramie. See The Laramie Project home page for more information on the play.

As some readers have pointed out, I am probably over-sensitive on this particular issue because I have lived in the Laramie area for over 21 years. It seems to me this play is, to use a football term, "piling on." It is just another, in a long series of media onslaughts raining down upon Laramie, generated by New York people flaunting their supposed moral superiority to us country rubes. Matthew Shepard's death is important and this case does deserve publicity, but for an entirely different reason. It is important because Laramie is not an unusual place at all. It is important because, sadly, there are all too many victims around this country like Matthew Shepard. Hate crimes happen in your city too. Most people (outside of Columbine High School area near Denver and Jasper, Texas) can count themselves lucky their city has not been picked out of the hundreds of cities where thousands of hate crimes are committed every year, to be held up as the hate crime capital of America.

Some readers, notably a couple of local readers wrote to me, saying, among other things, "how can you trash something that means so much to so many people. do you live in Wyoming? NO!" I guess they forgot to check the Laramie phone book. My name is in it, and has been in it for more than 21 years. How tough is it to check a phone book before sending off a ridiculous e-mail like that? Second of all, I didn't trash the play, at least not as far as its artistic merits go. My primary criticism of it is journalistic, and this is what makes this review almost unique. I was a newspaper reporter for more than 25 years, over 20 of those years in Laramie, including during the Matthew Shepard case and trial. I know a great deal about journalism and about this case. This play represents itself as an accurate account of what happened in Laramie. It has been described by others as journalistic drama. My criticism of this play is primarily limited to those aspects of the play which are inaccurate or misleading.

I no longer work for the Laramie Daily Boomerang. I retired on May 10, 2000. One of the reasons I retired was that I was very dissillusioned with the way the media covered the Matthew Shepard case. Rather than covering the case for what it was, a robbery and murder by two drunk and drugged addle-minded thugs, it was turned into a secular holy crusade for hate crime legislation in the U.S. I never would have thought I'd see such a horde of supposed journalists more concerned with a political agenda than with an objective reporting of facts, but that is what happened. It made me ashamed to be a newspaper reporter, something I had always been proud of up until that time. I see this play, soon to be made a movie, more of the same kind of treatment of the issue, at least to an extent.

Since the events of September 11, however, the Matthew Shepard incident seems a lot less important in the overall scheme of things, both locally and nationally. I see a nation far less divided than it was before that terrorist attack. Before, we were divided into a thousand minority groups, each trying to get more power for themselves. Hispanics, blacks and other minority groups now seem to view themselves as Americans more than as oppressed minorities. Arab-Americans, and others, like Sikhs, who appear to be of Arab descent have been victims of numerous hate crimes in the last month. I heard the U.S. Attorney General describe the killing of one particular Arab-American as a hate crime. How did he know it was a hate crime? Because the murder victim was not robbed. Matthew Shepard, on the other hand, was robbed, and not as an after-thought. Does this mean Shepard was not a hate crime victim? No, I think he was, at least in a liberal definition of the term. The killing of the thousands of people at the World Trade Centers, and at Washington and in Pennsylvania were hates crime of an infinitely larger and more profound scale. The killing of innocent Arab-Americans and others after the attack, constitute more terrorist attacks by wrong-headed Americans that must be added to the sad legacy of September 11. We live in a profoundly different society since September 11. All Americans are hate crime victims now. That is one of the reasons the nation is less divisive, more patriotic and more religious now. It is now, more than ever, obvious that we look past Laramie to see the big picture.

I hope that people in the rest of the country, especially New York, don't come away from "The Laramie Project" feeling like Laramie is some exotic place, thinking to themselves "Thank God I don't live there!" Therein lies the basic fallacy, even more obvious after September 11, because most people in this country live in places that are much the same as Laramie in every important way. Hey, and thanks a lot, US West (now known as Quest, Laramie's telephone monopoly) for sponsoring this play, it rates a B.

The Laramie Project has been made into a movie and it is available in various video formats. Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2000 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)