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After Matthew 

The Laramie Project unearths a better western

Ultimately, it's a western story. Not because hate is a uniquely western weapon or because the violence at the heart of Matthew Shepard's murder is somehow native to the high plains communities like Laramie. But because, for once, someone has penetrated beyond the cliche to understand the relationship between a rural community, its scarred emotional landscape and the bedrock sense of place that leads toward healing.

I first heard over the radio the reports of Matthew Shepard's brutal beating in Laramie -- accounts of how the University of Wyoming student was tied to a roadside fencepost miles from nowhere and left begging for his life, details of his 18 hours spent beneath the October sky, suffering from hypothermia, and how he was found completely covered in his own blood except for the streaks apparently washed clean by his tears.

You don't need a cue to know how to respond. Stage directions are beside the point.

To an outsider, the connection of this kind of violence to its setting has a very real sense of taking place. Laramie has been held hostage by new connotations in the same way that Waco and Columbine are indelibly stained by their recent bloody histories.

The astonishing success of The Laramie Project, however, lies in the company's ability to restore the town to its better angels, to clearly see the Escher-esque illusion of lifelong locals who firmly believe "we're not this kind of town" despite the irrefutable fact that, somehow, they are. The play captures the illusive human relationship to the landscape -- the appeal of the open space where Shepard was left for dead, the Wyoming wind that can drive a man insane, the symbolic ethic that "if you don't take care of your land, you lose it," and the solace Shepard's father could take in knowing that Matthew had his oldest friends with him as he slowly died on the fence -- "the beautiful night sky, daylight and sun to shine on him, the smell of Wyoming sagebrush, and the scent of the pine trees from the snowy range."

Perhaps the best testament to the play's power is the fact that a day after watching it, I found myself drawn to Laramie instead of repulsed by it, suddenly eager to drive across the border for a Sunday breakfast, a ride on a mountain bike and a beer at the Fireside Tavern at the end of the day.

The script from Moiss Kaufman and the members of the New York-based Tectonic Theater Project is anchored in over 200 interviews conducted by members of the cast and company with Laramie residents, students and witnesses, encountered over the course of six trips to the town, beginning a month after Matthew's death and continuing through the trials of the two young men responsible for his death and the first-year anniversary of his death.

The eight-member ensemble recreate the characters they encountered, bringing to life a tapestry of vignettes, found moments and perspectives, a multitude of vision coloring an otherwise sparse set. They also portray themselves, placing their own emotional journey alongside the subjects of their interviews.

Even though the New York troupe exaggerates the rural qualities of the community with generic "hick" accents creeping in, there is a palpable fondness for the characters they bring to the stage that is free of condescension, mockery, or judgment. They reject the easy path of quick characterization, taking us several layers further into the irresistible human nature that emerges when real dialogue takes place.

Among the dozens of characters we meet are Doc O'Connor, a limousine driver who met Matthew when he was hired to drive him to a gay bar in Fort Collins; the president of the university, who is accused of having Matthew's blood on his hands; Reggie Fluty, the first officer on the scene, who literally did have Matthew's blood on her scraped hands and who went through AZT treatment after her serious exposure to HIV; the medics in the emergency room, who treated Matthew and one of his assailants the same night without realizing it; a local minister defying the instinct to consult his superiors before acting to unite the community; the Reverend Phelps from Kansas City, who showed up with his "God Hates Fags" signs; Romaine Patterson, a lesbian student who countered Phelps by surrounding him with a "big-ass band of angels"; and Aaron Kreifels, the traumatized student who thought he was seeing a scarecrow when he came across Matthew on the fence while out on a solitary mountain bike ride, and later wrestled with a need to understand why God had chosen him to be the one to find Matthew.

There isn't a moment during the three hours when the audience is not captivated by the innovative approach to docu-theater, the unblinking exploration of an "isolated incident" that is nevertheless wholly representative of contemporary American culture in all its complexities. One local refutes the idea that Laramie is a "live and let live" community, refusing to accept the conclusion: "If I don't tell you I'm a fag then you won't beat the crap out of me."

Kaufman's company uses this act of theater to echo that repudiation, accepting the responsibility to face their potential to affect change. The Laramie Project is a powerful evening of discovery, full of unexpected humor, remarkable depth and the enduring grace of a lone figure silhouetted against the western landscape.

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