“What would he have become? How could he have changed his piece of the world to make it better?” These questions were posed in a courtroom statement by Dennis Shepard, father of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, who 25 years ago this week was kidnapped by two men, tied to a buck fence on the outskirts of Laramie, and left to die. Now, students in the Corcoran School of Arts & Design at The George Washington University are commemorating this anniversary and asking those questions in a new production of The Laramie Project by Moisés Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project, running through Sunday in the Dorothy Marvin Betts Theatre on the university’s Foggy Bottom campus.
In a way, this production couldn’t be farther from the place where, and the moment when, Matthew Shepard became a national figure. For one, it’s likely that none of these students had been born by the time Matthew was murdered. The tall buildings and busy streets of Foggy Bottom are a far cry from the Wyoming prairie. And in the time since his murder in 1998, major strides have been made in securing the rights of LGBTQ people, namely in areas of military service and marriage equality, but also through the adoption of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
But, at the same time, not so much has changed, either. The U.S. Department of Justice reported 7,262 hate crimes in 2021, of which more than 15 percent were motivated by sexual orientation. Politicians continue to demonize LGBTQ people for political gain. And just as the Laramie community insisted that this act of hate not define them, communities across the nation grapple with school shootings and violence perpetrated by their own youth. “My secret hope was that they were from somewhere else,” says Laramie resident Jeffrey Lockwood (Addy Blake) of the perpetrators. “That then of course you can create that distance: We don’t grow children like that here… Well, it’s pretty clear that we do grow children like that here.”
Perhaps it’s the persistence of those awful aspects of our society, and the experience of growing up in a time of such tumult (including a global pandemic and rampant political polarization), that have given this talented group of student performers their grounding in the play. The Laramie Project tells the story of Matthew Shepard’s murder and its aftermath, including the trials of his attackers and the subsequent fallout, through the voices of Laramie residents. Between the seven of them, the actors play more than five dozen characters over the course of the two-hour show, with no performer playing fewer than six roles. Together, Isabell Artino, Blake, Ally Fenton, Katrina Heil, Abigail Linderman, Espie Ortega-Tapia, and Winter Stelling form a tight onstage ensemble (supported by several recorded voice-overs, including university President Ellen M. Granberg) that, under the direction of Sidney Monroe Williams, offers a breadth of wisdom and emotional experience beyond their years. Williams has the hardworking ensemble moving continuously through the performance, incorporating dancing and pantomime to illustrate the community’s reactions and add further dimension to the rapidfire revelations offered up by each character. A departure from other local productions, like that seen at Ford’s Theatre exactly ten years ago, the incorporation of dance further heightens the tension that Kaufman and his colleagues so successfully conjure in their rich patchwork of voices, giving the impression that one moment sparked an accelerating avalanche of unstoppable change.
Artino offers a gripping performance as, among others, Aaron Kreifels, a biker who discovered Matthew at the fence. In addition to Lockwood, Blake gives a strong turn as Jedediah Schultz, an aspiring actor from a conservative family who finds understanding of LGBTQ people through Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Fenton commands audience attention from the get-go through her dynamic portrayals, pulling off a particular challenge in which she plays both a Baptist Minister and a Tectonic ensemble member who is interviewing him. Heil stands out with her eleven characters, each distinct and fully formed, and plays them all with remarkable ease. Linderman plays a number of authoritative characters astutely, but none so much as Dennis Shepard, whose climactic monologue they precisely perform to maximum emotional effect. Ortega-Tapia delivers an even-keeled portrayal as several voices of reason, including a judge, drama teacher, and Unitarian minister. And Stelling’s tender depictions of two of the play’s most endearing characters, police officer Reggie Fluty and gay longtime resident Harry Woods, were deeply moving.
The obvious, uniform commitment to developing their characters, and to remaining in sync with each other, was a hallmark of this ensemble. Delivering specificity and distinctness is a challenge in shows like The Laramie Project, where performers juggle several characterizations in close succession. In future productions, the actors may think more deeply about their incorporation of accents and what clues they give an audience about a character. Some regional accents employed in this production were incongruent with background information offered in the play itself but ultimately did not detract from the show in a significant way. The production’s pacing started strong and remained consistent throughout, with brief, sporadic disruptions as a result of rushed or muddled lines. Opening night jitters may have caused the occasional mumble or stumble, but the performers should be confident in the show they’ve put forth, and this reviewer is confident that subsequent performances will see these actors soaring.
The large thrust stage of the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre is left mostly empty in Carl F. Gudenius’ set, save for a couple of chairs and a long buck fence decorated with flowers, well-wishes, and other remnants of a candlelight vigil. Overhead, three white video screens each resemble the Wyoming we encounter in the play: square in shape but stretched to its limit. Michele Onwochei’s lighting offers flashes of bold colors ripped from the Pride flag, occasionally fading to softer hues in moments of distress and reflection. Warren Lewis costumes the actors in flesh-toned jumpsuits, which serve as a canvas on which to add hats, shirts, and other accessories to help distinguish between characters. Sound designer Kebby Seyoun offers a ceaseless track that ranges from an ethereal hum to folksy country music. At times, the sound overpowered the actors or felt at odds with clear spots of suggested levity, but the moments when the writing, acting, and sound aligned were excellent.
In that same aforementioned courtroom speech, Dennis Shepard said, “Matt’s beating, hospitalization, and funeral focused worldwide attention on hate. Good is coming out of evil.” It’s hard to imagine that Dennis and Judy Shepard could know the impact that Matt’s story would have on the world, whether it be through the work of the Matthew Shepard Foundation and adoption of federal anti–hate-crime legislation that bears his name, or the success of The Laramie Project, which has enjoyed countless professional, amateur, and student productions across the world. Regardless, Matt’s story continues to be told and, through the stewardship of seven students who belong to the first generation after Matt’s death, it remains one that deserves to be heard. The answer is clear: Matthew Shepard has made his piece of the world better.
Running Time: Two hours with one 10-minute intermission.
The Laramie Project plays through October 8, 2023, in the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre at The George Washington University, 800 21st St NW, Washington, DC. Tickets are on sale online and at the box office and range from $10 for students/seniors to $20 for general admission.