In October 1998, outside of Laramie, Wyo., 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was beaten, tortured, tied to a fence and left to die. The two men who did it said they did it because he was gay.
Beginning one month later, a small collective of actors and writers, known as the Tectonic Theater Project, traveled six times to Laramie, compiling more than 200 interviews with local citizens. Out of those interviews with students, teachers, bartenders, doctors, neighbors and police, and with the inclusion of news reports and court documents, this collective created “The Laramie Project,” under the guidance of playwright Moises Kaufman.
This distinguished, sensitive and deceptively simple piece of modern documentary theater manages to affect us without preaching or judging. First produced in Denver in February 2000 and in New York City a few months later, “The Laramie Project” has become a theatrical teaching tool. It is as vital as “The Crucible” or “An Enemy of the People,” packing just as much of a theatrical wallop, albeit in a different style.
Theatrical docudrama is tremendously hard to produce. Being too clever with staging may allow the story to disappear behind the art. Lack of flair and flash with the piece, and the tale may fall as flat and dull as CNN. The Albany Civic Theater production is crammed with good actors capable of telling that tale, but the presentation is uneven, too often leaving questions that the story isn’t asking.
While first-time ACT director Adam Coons shows passion for the piece, he often allows the emotion to run to ahead of the story. A few moments are allowed to become too reverential. Pauses become Pinter-like and end up telling us how we should feel instead of letting us discover it for ourselves.
The decision to have one actor perform most of the play’s narration is a curious one. Kaufman’s script divides the job among all the actors for a reason: allowing a community to tell the story. Here, Kevin Barhydt tackles the majority of the task, moving him to the role of an outsider.
While the rest of the cast shifts through the different citizens of Laramie, as well as theatrical inventions of themselves, Barhydt has only one other role in the play: Matthew’s father, Dennis. The actor does deliver a stirring and heartfelt recreation of the elder Shepard’s statement at the perpetrator’s sentencing, but the choice to have one focused narrator in the play steals a portion of the collective sense of the actors who created this experience.
Also missing is the feeling of shared observation. This is quelled significantly by having the actors appear only in the scenes they are recreating. True, the story is being told to the audience, but it is being told collectively and all should be present in support of each other — even when they are not actively involved in the telling. This device is one of the main supports in the structure of this docudrama and its absence allows the evening to become more episodic than it should.
The use of a disembodied voice blurting out the scene shifts is a bit sterile. The playwright has labeled these movements in perspective as “moments,” and whether these acknowledgements of change are to be spoken or “felt” is open for discussion. But as presented here they feel intrusive, offering up more a feeling of a train station departure announcement or a monotone hospital page. They whisk away the created emotional shadows with each droning arrival.
But whatever missteps here and there, Coons has assembled a talented corps of actors who are able to get to the story’s emotional essence. Kevin X. McNamara balances brilliant comic flair as the colorful car hack Doc with an affecting and caring Dr. Cantway. David Cerutti finds the youthful enthusiasm of an actor embracing his artistic gifts and devastates when he is exposing the buried anger of a young man who has destroyed his own life and that of another.
Swiftly moving from grandma to outspoken rancher, Hollie L. Miller once again displays her expert theatrical range. The balance of the cast — Glenn Alkinberg, Stephen Foust, Meigg Jupin, Jennie Pines and Elizabeth Sherwood-Mack — all have an earnest connection to the material and each has a moment to shine.