By Ally Fedorka
All of the talk surrounding the Villanova Student Theatre’s emotional three-act fall show, “The Laramie Project,” intrigued me. I heard from several people that I would laugh and cry, but mostly cry.
The play was performed in St. Mary’s Auditorium from November 5-9. It was written by Moisés Kaufman and directed by Sam Sherburne, and the cast was composed of University undergraduate students ranging from freshmen to seniors. They have been preparing and rehearsing since early September.
“The Laramie Project” is about the aftermath of and reactions to the kidnapping and brutal murder of openly gay Matthew Shepard, 21, in the small town of Laramie, Wyo. He was taken from a local bar by two men, beaten, tied to a fence and left to die on Oct. 6, 1998. Matthew died six days later in a coma. The men who killed him were both tried and sentenced to death.
While he was in a coma and in the months following his death, there was a massive uprising in Shepard’s name for gay rights and for non-discrimination in general.
This play is about the Tectonic Theater Project’s decision to do their part and delve deeper into the issue by traveling to Laramie multiple times and conducting hundreds of interviews in order to portray the town accurately after this brutal hate crime and raise awareness. The presence of the theatre company creates an interesting “play within a play” type of feeling.
In his director’s note, Sherburne writes, “For me this play is about the way you go about finding out what is true. It is about seeking out a multitude of perspectives and giving other people the incredible gift of your genuine attention in the hope and trust that still others will give that gift to you.”
Each actor in the play portrayed five or six different characters without ever leaving the stage, requiring them to focus.The characters portrayed included members of the Tectonic Theater Project, the CEO of the hospital where Matthew was treated, several religious leaders with different opinions on homosexuality, the two criminals—–Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson—-faculty members and students at the local university and other citizens of Laramie who knew Matthew.
The cast switched seamlessly between roles with simple costume changes such as the addition of a scarf or necklace. Despite the complexity of the plot, the play was deeply personal and emotional, bringing the audience and cast members to tears several times.
“Trying to make sure that everything stays real,” is the most difficult aspect of performing a play with such emotional and sensitive subject matter, freshman Tom Boland said. “If you ever try to fake that kind of emotion, the whole play can really be turned in the wrong direction. We spent a lot of time individually preparing our roles and making sure that we had some connection to each one so that the play really stayed based in truth.”
All of the actors were extremely emotionally invested in this production, a fact that clearly shone through in their performances.
“I think as much as the people who wrote the play, everyone who is in it has an obligation, an honor to really portray what it’s all about,” freshman Brenna Fallows said.
All of the actors cooperated well together on stage. They seemed to understand what it means to stay true to their characters while simultaneously working with the rest of the cast to put on a riveting performance, keeping the audience alert and entertained.
In addition, while most of the play was serious, the script incorporated some much needed comical moments which the audience responded to well.
“We have people with all different personality types and we all came together better than we ever thought we could,” sophomore Jessie Stephens said.
I learned that above everything else, the cast wants the audience to take something away from this play, to really think about their own views and actions surrounding the issue presented.
In his director’s note, Sherburne quotes Matthew Shepard’s father: “‘What would [Matt] have become? How could he have changed his piece of the world to make it better?’ Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father, asks us in his speech before the court at his son’s murder sentencing. The question is also a challenge. To people who make theater and people who live in the world.”
“The Laramie Project” calls upon its viewers to reflect on this very serious matter. The play contains lessons and an opportunity to think about hate and intolerance.