Drama’s “The Laramie Project” moves audience with the true story of Matthew Shepard


Citizens of Laramie held a parade to commemorate Shepard. The actors painted their own banner to use in the show. Photo by Justin Kim

Ilena Peng

Homosexuality is not a lifestyle with which I agree,” doctor Rulon Stacey (junior Grace Nevitt) said. “But I don’t understand the magnitude with which they hate.”

“The Laramie Project” tells the story of Matthew Shepard, a young boy whose life was taken by two homophobic men – Aaron McKinney (senior Eric Crouch) and Russell Henderson (senior Jonathan Thompson.) Twenty-one year old Shepard was tied to a fence and beaten to death on Oct. 7, 1998. The events that followed shocked the nation, but even more so within the small town of Laramie, Wyoming. Moises Kaufman (junior Michael Burgess) and the Tectonic Theatre Company flocked to Laramie, recording all the scenes happening up until a year after resulting in “The Laramie Project.”

Each student played multiple characters and each character had an entirely different set of experiences: a doctor who stayed up for nearly 72 hours trying to save Shepard’s life, a university student who found Shepard’s body, a mother who was mad at her son, a sheriff, for getting involved in this case.

Each of these experiences was heavy and personal, and the drama students portrayed without fail the heartbreaking tales of the people of Laramie. The lighting was dim, often times the whole stage was dark save for one spotlight, making the acting seem more personal. For the majority of the show, no background was used leaving the stage in eerie silence, with only the actors’ voices carrying out over the theatre. The sole weight of the show relied on the manner in which the actors said their lines and each line was delivered eloquently and emotionally.

The citizens of Laramie held a parade to commemorate Shepard. The actors painted their own banner to use in the show. Photo by Justin Kim

The serious experiences in the play are thankfully not anything that students have experienced, yet their mature acting and pure emotion made high schoolers able to capture the role of their older counterparts.

The play perfectly depicted the fear and disbelief of the people involved. A lesbian schoolteacher, Catherine Conolly (sophomore Kayleen Nordyke) recounted winning nearly all the teaching awards possible, yet she said every year on teacher evaluations someone would say “She likes girls. And it shows. It’s disgusting.” The detailed script and the actors’ attention to those details made the play that much more realistic.

Even though the drama department was walking on the borders of a very delicate topic, the language and emotion used was anything but. Offensive words like “faggot” were spit out in anger and during Aaron McKinney’s very emotional trial, McKinney (senior Eric Crouch) broke down, hitting the table so hard that everyone in the audience jumped. McKinney fell apart, saying that he didn’t know what he had done. He was ready to accept whatever sentence the court gave him choking out the words “I’m never going to see my kid again, am I?” before sinking his head back into his hands. Crouch skillfully juxtaposed angrily hitting a table and barely being able to speak to create impact. The actors’ ability to create moments like these kept the audience engaged throughout the whole show.

Ganesh as Dennis Shepard during the trial of Aaron McKinney. The lines were made memorable by the hand gestures and facial expressions. Photo by Justin Kim

During McKinney’s trial, Matthew Shepard’s dad (senior Hari Ganesh) delivered a moving four-minute soliloquy where he spoke in Matthew’s honor. Ganesh’s voice was rough and hesitant; at places he seemed unable to speak, too close to tears, making it seem as if he really had lost something very precious to him. Ganesh’s voice carried through the auditorium, saying “It is the time in which we must forgive those that don’t deserve to be forgiven.” The look of anguish upon his face and the powerful way in which he delivered the words made the line one of the most memorable in the play.

The skill with which the actors brought the story to the stage left the audience in shock. When the play finally ended, the audience was silent for a moment – contemplating – before clapping as the actors bowed. The play itself is acted out so beautifully that one forgets it’s more than a mere story, that 17 years ago in Wyoming, a real boy named Matthew Shepard died at the hands of two unmerciful homophobic boys. And despite the fact that this was only a high school production, the actors did the difficult play justice, bringing out every detail to make it a truly moving show.

Buy tickets to watch “The Laramie Project” this weekend on November 13 and 14 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 at seatyourselfbiz.com or $12 at the door.