Review: “The Laramie Project” in Healdsburg

It’s been more than two decades since 21-year-old college student Matthew Shephard was kidnapped, beaten, tortured, tied to a fence and left to die in a remote area near Laramie, Wyoming. The savageness and “How could it happen here?” nature of the crime grabbed the world’s attention and Shephard’s funeral and subsequent trials of the two perpetrators garnered massive media attention.

New York-based playwright Moisés Kaufman (Gross Indecency: The Three Trails of Oscar Wilde) took note of the coverage and pondered why this particular crime seemed to resonate with so many. Within a month of the murder, Kaufman and members of his Tectonic Theatre Project headed to Laramie to interview members of the community. The Laramie Project, running now at Healdsburg’s Raven Performing Arts Theater through Nov. 3, was the outcome.

Austin Schmidt, Matt Farrell, Jeremy Boucher

Not so much a play as it a staged documentary, it consists of recreations of the interviews conducted by the theatre company with members of the community, friends of Shephard, law enforcement and the medical professionals who cared for Shepard.

Director Steven David Martin has a cast of ten (Zack Acevedo, Jeremy Boucher, Christi Calson, Matt Farrell, Athena Gundlach, Elizabeth Henry, Grace Reid, Austin Schmidt, Steve Thorpe, and Katie Watts-Whitaker) essaying over 60 different roles from the bartender who served Shepard and his killers their last drinks to the local Catholic priest who was turned away by other local religious “leaders” when seeking their support in conducting a vigil. It is a very strong ensemble, led by Thorpe as playwright Kaufmann as well as the Emergency Room doctor who first treated Shepard and Shepard’s father among others. Thorpe’s delivery of Dennis Shephard’s heart-wrenching statement to the Judge on the question of sentencing is devastating.

The performances are supported by some high-quality technical work. Set design by Michael Mingoia, lighting design by Dan Spears, and sound design by Tom Leukens all evoke the sparse Wyoming setting beginning with a silhouette of the surrounding mountains and sections of that horrid fence. Projections are effectively used to provide context and there’s an interesting use of a live video feed.    

It would be great to be able to think that things like the events in The Laramie Project can’t happen here, but before this community pats itself on the back for being so progressive, ask the students of a local high school about members of their community trying to disrupt their recent production of this show.

Rating (out of 5): ★★★★

‘The Laramie Project’ runs Fri–Sun through Nov. 3 at the Raven Performing Arts Theater, 115 North St., Healdsburg.              Fri –Sat, 8pm; Sun., 2pm. $5–$28. 707.433.6335. raventheater.org

Photos by Ray Mabry

This review originally appeared in an edited version in the North Bay Bohemian.

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