Eleven years have passed since the premiere of The Laramie Project; 12 and a half years have elapsed since the death of its principal character, Matthew Shepard. It remains an eerie document in this, its fourth incarnation in the region, itself the subject of a semester-long course by theater studies students at Duke University. Where the fundamental challenges in many scripts can remain unarticulated, even well into a production process, the one in the Tectonic Theater Project's text is nothing if not up-front. It's in the words of one of the interviewed, Father Roger Schmidt, who admonishes the writers—and every actor and director who does this show—not to misappropriate the words entrusted them by the witnesses. "Do your best," he says, "to say it correct."
I should praise here the moving work under Jeff Storer's direction by a number of actors, including Emma Miller, Spencer Paez, Andy Chu, Naomi Riemer, Ben Bergmann and Afftene Taylor, an able chorus which clearly, for the most part, voices the complex and dissonant chords of a group of bewildered, concerned, frightened, offended—and divided—inhabitants of a small town torn apart by homophobic violence, whose flaws were endlessly dissected before a worldwide audience.
Is it merely the season, I wonder, that gives this production the sense of a passion play? When Father Schmidt says the quote above, why do I also hear the words, "Do this in remembrance of me"?
It seems appropriate that dramaturge Jules Odendahl-James focuses in her notes on the irreducible distance between the truth and the theater's presentations and representations of it, and what must get lost in between. The Laramie Project is about loss. It documents what is absent, what has been taken from us and how it was taken. We can't get it back. A human life. An innocence.