Too Close to Home

Midway through Act Two of The Laramie Project, a pair of performers reenact one of the 200 interviews they conducted with the people of Laramie, Wyoming, after the murder of Matthew Shepard, the gay college student who was robbed, beaten, bound and left for dead on a remote rail fence by two men he'd met at a local bar. This particular scene focuses on the Roman Catholic priest who held a memorial service just hours after Shepard died. "I will trust that if you will write a play about this, you will say it right," the actor impersonating Father Roger Schmit gently urges the other actor. "Just deal with what is true. You need to do your best to say it correct."

For the members of New York's Tectonic Theater Project, who are presenting the world-premiere work in association with the Denver Center Theatre Company, that measured admonition seems to have been both a guiding and a circumscribing force. Bringing to mind the Federal Theater Project's "living newspaper" dramas of the 1930s (which examined prevailing social issues by marrying the talents of unemployed newspapermen and actors) and the "theater of testimony" exemplified by Emily Mann's Execution of Justice (which revolves around the murders of former San Francisco mayor George Moscone and gay-rights activist Harvey Milk), the fact-based drama recounts the events surrounding Shepard's murder as told by those who actually witnessed and experienced them.

In this case, though, the townsfolk's testimonials are further filtered by the perceptions of the actor/writers who interviewed their subjects and who, under the direction of Tectonic artistic director Moisés Kaufman (Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde), reconstruct those encounters on a mostly bare stage. Despite the fact that the company strives to be faithful to the material at hand -- on opening night, the actors moved some audience members to tears with heartrending accounts of Shepard's vivacity and charm, his five-day post-attack battle to regain consciousness and his father's eloquent courtroom statement to one of the killers -- they sometimes undermine their efforts by slavishly serving as both reporters and interpreters of fact. Even though that choice lends the material the occasional ring of truth, it more often gives rise to situations in which the performers' personalities cloud each character's luminosity, leading viewers to wonder whether the feelings expressed are those of the characters, the journalist/performers or an awkward combination of both.

Indeed, rather than cut and paste together collages of factual information, artists should illuminate higher truths; they should be, in the Shakespearean sense, "absent chroniclers" instead of omnipresent editors. (The Bard's history plays, for example, are no less true to human feeling even though they subvert historical fact and brim with imaginary conversations between historical figures.) But whether the performers in Laramie, all but one of whom are credited as writers, have been overly invigorated by factual circumstances or merely blinded by them, that rarely happens. Most of the time, the near-three-hour performance seems like an extended wake -- albeit an unrelentingly compelling one -- in which the performer/characters are bound to speak about their feelings, and the audience, however willing, must listen.

While everyone in the group takes on a wide variety of roles (including portraying other company members), three performers imbue their portraits with fuller measures of conviction, passion and, at times, humor. In addition to gamely taking on a couple of unpleasant parts near play's end, Andy Paris is endearing as University of Wyoming theater student Jedediah Schultz, who defies his parents' wishes and performs a scene from Angels in America so that he might win a much-needed college scholarship. Later, Paris portrays the doctor who treated both Shepard and one of his assailants while they lay within a few paces of each other in the emergency room, only to learn two days later of their tragic connection. "I felt a great deal of compassion for both of them," he says near the end of Act One. Kelli Simpkins sharply conveys gay-rights activist Romaine Patterson's nagging ambivalence, as well as her gutsy inventiveness, when it comes to speaking out in the face of hate. Stymied by a hate-mongering sort who shows up at Shepard's funeral spewing anti-gay rhetoric, Patterson marshals a "big-ass band of angels" who shield mourners (and television cameras) from the offending lout by encircling him with outstretched "wings" of opaque white cloth. She's also touching as Aaron Kreifels, the bicyclist who, hearkening to an inner voice that commanded him to depart from his planned route, was the first to come upon Shepard's broken body. "Why did God want me to find him?" he wonders. Stephen Belber endows tough-talking limousine driver Doc O'Connor with rough-and-ready charm, especially when he offers up a hilarious maxim concerning the supposed toughness of "Wyoming queers." And Belber is eminently believable as Matt Galloway, the hyperkinetic bartender who served Shepard his last drink at the Fireside lounge and who takes with near-Barney-Fife-like seriousness his responsibilities as a potential lead witness for the prosecution.

Although some of the characters in the first few scenes come off as little more than the sum of their mannerisms, Amanda Gronich's rendering of a Baptist minister eventually proves credible, especially when her character says of the accused, "I think they deserve the death penalty, but I will try to deal with them spiritually." Gronich is also effective as a concerned mother, Marge Murray, who attempts to put events in plainspoken perspective even as she agonizes over whether her daughter, a sheriff's deputy who was the first officer at the crime scene, might have been infected by Shepard's HIV-positive blood. "Would you like to talk about losing sleep?" she asks a tape-recorder-toting questioner. As said daughter, Mercedes Herrero articulates Reggie Fluty's unease and adds some nice touches to her portrait of University of Wyoming theater professor Rebecca Hilliker. Barbara Pitts blends the traditional with the contemporary while playing an Islamic slacker who looks at life a tad differently than her fellow citizens: "It felt so good to be with people who felt like shit," she waxes rhapsodic of her experiences at a candlelight vigil for Shepard. John McAdams gets caught up in the emotion of Dennis Shepard's courtroom declaration (what actor wouldn't?) but manages to invest the balance of that scene with quiet dignity. "May you have a long life, and may you thank Matthew every day for it," he says, following his and wife Judy Shepard's decision to spare defendant Aaron McKinney the electric chair. And Greg Pierotti is convincing both as the aforementioned Father Roger and as a spokesman who believes his sudden show of emotion before the assembled media throngs has somehow compromised the Shepards' wishes.

But no matter how confidently the play leans on the pillars of fact, it has yet to embrace broader truths as effectively as it articulates individual dilemmas. The piece will likely show its true strength when it has a post-Tectonic life, when actors who had no part in conducting the interviews attempt to put forth this story, just as Kaufman and company have tried to present the version of the truth entrusted to them by the people of Laramie. Before that can occur, though, the troupe will need to digest its experiences here and take a major step toward what Shakespeare termed "the brightest heaven of invention." Perhaps then the truth, as Father Roger might say, will set them free.