A Vile Death in Laramie: Do Ask, Do Tell Why and How

Whenever I see a desk and a chair facing us onstage, my heart always sinks a bit and I think, “Here comes Spalding Gray.” The teacherly desk with the ritual bottle of water is to blame. We are in for a kind of lecture, a monologue, a docudrama. But the stage picture itself is by now an uninspiring one, a static cliché, a dead form of theater. A desk does not hold out the promise of imagined things.

It’s a tribute to the generous gifts of the director Moises Kaufman and his committed ensemble of eight actors that the five desks that greet us with the gravity of obelisks at the start of The Laramie Project didn’t send me scurrying from the Union Square Theatre. To be lectured five times over, and threateningly even more-for some of the desks had two chairs behind them!-only conjured up multiple images of spawning Spaldings telling us the endless stories of self-satisfied bourgeois griots. But we needn’t worry on that score. Mr. Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project are the admired creators of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde , and they have important stories to tell us as witnesses to history and to “the magnitude of hate.”

The Laramie Project ambitiously reconstructs the events surrounding the 1998 murder of the 21-year-old openly gay student Matthew Shepard and the trials of his two killers. His vile death divided and traumatized the citizens of Laramie, Wyo., and became a famous cause célèbre. The young boy who discovered the battered, scarcely alive Shepard tied bleeding to a fence in a field thought he’d come across a scarecrow. Mr. Kaufman also wrote this immensely moving piece with members of his troupe. They traveled to Laramie to conduct some 200 interviews in over six visits, like investigative journalists. Each ensemble actor plays several roles (and those desks soon disappear). They have created a docudrama, nevertheless. As one of the college students says to the actor studying her: “You’re going to be, like, onstage acting us? That’s so weird!”

Weird to the sheltered Laramie folk, maybe, but the docudramas of Anna Deveare Smith alone have made the form well-known. Fires in the Mirror , her theater piece about the Crown Heights riots in 1991, and Twilight: Los Angeles , about the Rodney King beating, had a political and social urgency that’s compellingly similar to that of The Laramie Project . In the shocking absence of anything approaching controversial television documentaries in the U.S., the theater has an effective role to play. But the experience of Ms. Smith’s recent piece on the American presidency-the outcome of 425 interviews over five years-was like plowing through a blurred, messily edited living history of familiar material with the usual cast of suspects, including George Stephanopoulos, Gary Hart and those White House loveboats, Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche. The problem with Ms. Smith’s Studs Terkel approach is that she ended up interviewing everyone, like an Elvis sleuth gleaning a morsel from one of his 92 chefs. (“He sure loved his fries and grits.”)

The Laramie Project skirts earnestness, too, and its harrowing theme may be familiar to those who have previously read one or two of the many articles on the case. It is more of a ritual ceremony that we are sharing. And do we know all we should know in this vigil? What do most of us-you and I-truly know of hate crimes and the quality of mercy?

Earlier in the season, I resisted seeing a one-man show about gays in the military, feeling in smug ignorance that I knew the story. But Another American: Asking and Telling , written and performed by Marc Wolf, and directed by Joe Mantello, was beautiful. Mr. Wolf had spent years interviewing gays and bigots in the military, and the more gently restrained he was in his stories and impersonations, the more he had us all in tears of utter frustration and outrage. A grieving mother’s testimony was about the son she loved who was beaten to death by a fellow soldier for being gay. The son was unrecognizable, except for a tattoo on his arm.

What do we really know of a thousand such deaths, and the deaths by stealth through a thousand more humiliations? Another American was performed at the small theater within St. Clement’s Episcopal Church on the fringes of Broadway. Don’t ask, don’t tell? But a sign in the church foyer reads: “There Will Be No Outcasts.”

So The Laramie Project is within the oral tradition that elicits the response, “I hear you!” Or as one of the more tolerant Laramie natives puts it: “As I always say, ‘Do not fuck with a Wyoming queer.’” Ah, those “natives.” Bit of vivid local color there, among the hicks and plain folk in Our Town cowboy country. Mr. Kaufman has made a tactical error, I think, in presenting the Laramie locals mostly in the guise of Thornton Wilder innocents and “characters.” No doubt this is how they were pleased to present Laramie to him-”People are happy here.” “A good place to live. Good people. Lots of space.” “I love it here”-but was “our town” ever Our Town in the first place? This sentimental myth about community, caring and tolerance in middle America galls. It couldn’t happen here? You bet it could. Laramie is just the sort of place the Shepard murder could happen. It did.

Perhaps it’s a minor quibble that Mr. Kaufman and his ensemble have adopted a somewhat passé journalistic technique of making themselves part of the story. They are actors playing the dual role of reporters. They are fair and honest reporters, too. But when an actor who’s playing Moises Kaufman explains how they all moved out of their Best Western hotel in hopes of “a better Western,” is it relevant to the story? Another member of the troupe, playing himself in a scene, tells us how he wept when visiting the site of the killing. But doesn’t this story-and the compassionate telling of it here-speak better for itself?

“I’ve never done anything like this in my life,” one of the actresses tells us naïvely at the beginning. “How do you do it? What do you ask people?”

Well, you go to Laramie and you ask questions. And that they surely did . The Laramie Project compels us to remember the sweet life and homophobic murder of Matthew Shepard with love and fear and some sense of grace and tolerance, from angels in America.

When Shepard mercifully dies in a hospital, there’s a short scene that takes place in the rain. Rain falls onstage, and at first, it surprised me like a director’s trick. But Mr. Kaufman is better than that, and the effect I thought I’d seen before was startling and fresh, a symbolic washing away of bad blood, a cleansing, and a new beginning.