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On the lobby walls at Duke's Shafer theatre, where the University Department of Theatre Studies is presenting The Laramie Project, are sets of stark, and rather damning, statistics. For 1998, the year 21 year-old Matthew Shepard was beaten, robbed, tortured, secured to a buck-fence, and left for dead on a lonesome Wyoming plain, there were 7,755 hate-crimes reported in the United States. Eleven years later, that number had jumped an additional 581, to 8,336. And of these, nearly 1,500 were related either to the victim's sexuality or to perceived assumptions about it. Meanwhile, autumn of 2010 saw a spate of adolescent suicides among those harassed, again, either for being gay or simply suspected of it. And in 2009, when the national act bearing her son's name was debated in Congress, Judy Shepard was subjected to the appallingly ignorant and astonishingly insensitive complaints of North Carolina Representative Virginia Foxx: "We know that that young man was killed in the commitment of a robbery. It wasn't because he was gay.... It's really a hoax that that continues to be used as an excuse for passing hate crimes bills." In the face of these calamities, there can be no better time for a production of The Laramie Project.
Moises Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project, collectively responsible for the superb Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, visited Laramie some half-dozen times over several months between the attack on Shepard and the aftermath of the trials of his killers. Kaufman and company interviewed dozens of Laramie residents, seeking not only to get at, in the title of Judy Shepard's book, "the meaning of Matthew," but also to comprehend the reality of the small university town in which he spent his final months. Was there something in Laramie that prepared the way for this atrocity, or was there both more, and less, to the Wyoming enclave than met the media's many eyes?
The result is a drama about making drama, an examination of appearance and reality and the means by which national attention blurs those lines, and an elegy of such power that it is, occasionally, almost unbearable to watch, and which must be extraordinarily taxing to play. That Laramie at Duke is such a triumph of staging and scrupulous humaneness is no surprise, given that it has been directed by the exceptionally gifted Jeff Storer, of Durham's invaluable Manbites Dog. Moreover, his student cast meets, and exceeds, nearly all expectations.
Thirteen young performers essay some sixty roles, differentiated by the slightest of costume alterations — hats, scarves, jackets — and their collective brilliance as an ensemble. Playing Laramie residents and the Tectonic troupe as well as occasional interlopers such as national reporters, politicians, and the likes of the odious Fred Phelps, they carry out the kind of fundamental, ecclesiastic ceremony in which theatre itself is rooted, complete with catharsis: while some of the participants of these interviews remain strikingly unmoved in their hostile complacency, yet there are also those for whom these painful events are transformative — even, in a way, sanctified.
In a band of nearly uniform excellence, a few names are deserving of special mention: Summer Puente, especially in her incarnation of the heroic Romaine Patterson; Ashley Jones; Kristen Price; Naomi Riemer, exuding warmth and poise in equal measure, notably as the Lesbian university professor Catherine Connolly; Emma Miller, whose performance as the estimable policewoman Reggie Fluty is stunningly realized; Julian Spector, notably as both Detective Sargent Hing and the exceedingly rare Father Roger Schmidt; Spencer Paez, a fine Moises Kaufman and a chillingly unrepentant Aaron McKinney; Ben Bergmann, an expansive, and inordinately decent, Matt Galloway; and Andy Chu, whose ongoing presence as the Laramie student actor Jedidiah Schultz provides the project with its central, individual movement toward growth, and its most resounding — and hopeful — grace note.
Torry Bend's spare, effective scenic design provides the perfect playing space. Chuck Catotti's lighting is both stark and often beautiful, the videography of Alex Maness adds a layer of immediacy and critique, and Jessica Gaffney's costumes accentuate, illuminate, and never overwhelm. Jeff Storer has directed with the sort of unobtrusive inventiveness, breathtaking style, and epic economy that has made his thespic labors a bulwark of absolutely vital theatre in the Triangle for over 20 years.
What is going on at the Shaefer is essential theatre: a communion between actors and audience that is incisive, brisk despite its nearly three-hour running time, compassionate, and deeply human. Miss it at your peril.
The Laramie Project continues at Duke through April 17. For details, see the sidebar.