The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

By Moises Kauffman and the Tectonic Theatre Project
Directed by Kate McGill
Basement Theatre, Auckland | August 28-September 8

I would’ve been eight years old when Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998. At the time, I don’t even think I was aware of the incident. It was only when I was a teenager—and really finding myself and becoming passionate or at the very least informed about gay issues—that I learned of Shepard and the incredible impact that his death had not only on Laramie, but the entire world. At first, it was hard for me to imagine an environment where this could occur. But even looking around my own South Auckland suburb, it was easy to see how a kind of passive intolerance can morph into a hateful act.

I bring up my personal response to Shepard’s murder because The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later is about how a community’s reaction to tragedy can be simultaneously politicized and personalised, and how these two reactions are not necessarily exclusive. It follows on from the successful 2000 play, The Laramie Project, which centred on the community in the direct aftermath of Shepard’s murder, through to the trial of the two men who killed him. Written by Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theatre Project, it was constructed from hundreds of interviews, news reports, and journal entries from members of the company. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, a structural master class, and a perfect snapshot of a community at a point in time, yet one that also resonates and feels endlessly relevant, even fourteen years on. Ten Year Later returns to Laramie, using the same methods to explore how Shepard’s murder has impacted the community, and how much the town, the country, and the world have progressed in the decade since.

10 Years Later is no less powerful than its predecessor. While The Laramie Project obtains a lot of its power and gravitas from its exploration of the anger, confusion, and rage in the wake of a tragedy—especially one so tied to hate—10 Years Later is a depiction of a community that has still not fully recovered or moved on from a tragedy which has sadly defined it. It’s about a community that has become entrenched in their opinions and views of the event. For some, it has spurred them on to fight passionately for gay rights and hate crime legislation; for others, it has become a non-event, something to be forgotten or to move past. The play is about many, many things—homophobia, intolerance, education, the difference between change and progress—but it is ultimately about community. Whether it be the Laramie community, the LGBT community on a nationwide or worldwide scale, or The Tectonic Theatre Project themselves, there are as many viewpoints as there are people, and each and every one of these is valid, no matter how tolerant or hateful.

I could go on for thousands of words about the brilliance of the play itself, but I’ll move onto the production, which, in short, is flat-out fantastic. The ensemble is strong, with each of the eight actors portraying several characters, moving between them fluidly and with purpose. With only a costume change and occasional set change, they become the person sitting in front of us. Shadon Meredith’s turn as Father Rodger is complex and grounded, and in his hands the priest becomes a voice of reason with an admirable moral code that seems to exist above the realm of judgment. As Deb Thomson, Sophie Hambleton perfects the chilling Southern warmth, all manners and politeness, but with a steel core at the centre. Renee Lyons has a late-breaking monologue as a Republican that gives the play a jolt of energy and politically-charged anger, exposing us—or at least me—to the idea of morals that exist outside of the realm of contemporary politics. Josephine Stewart-Tewhiu is always a magnetic presence to watch onstage, and towards the end of the play, her Romaine Patterson is devastating through not only her honesty, but her acceptance of both the event and the aftermath. Martyn Wood’s turn as folkorist John Dorst captures in only a few minutes how unbearable the well-learned can be, but also that they have poignant, relevant things to say. Sophie Roberts plays Catherine Connolly throughout the play, and she’s a bright light, bringing the woman off the page and out of the news reports: a passionate, righteous woman with a whip-smart sense of humour.

Finally, Simon Kevin Leary and Leon Wadham have the unenviable task of portraying the convicted McKinney and Henderson. They bring both characters to life so they become people, not just criminals; people who made a mistake and have varying levels of remorse about it. Leary’s McKinney comes across vividly, a man of almost terrifying charisma, while Wadham plays Henderson with a fitting meekness. Both of their scenes are key to the play working and remaining even-handed, and they’re as human as the rest of the characters portrayed.

Although the play naturally conforms to a talking heads format, Katharine McGill’s fluid direction doesn’t allow it to happen. Actors walk from scene to scene, changing the set and changing their costume, or changing other people’s costumes. The stage is alive with movement, action and just plain life, really. It’s like we’re watching a community move through their everyday life. The set and costumes hanging on the wall reinforce this, as if the community were being laid bare, their individual morals and prejudices clear to us. The technical elements are elegant and minimalistic. Ashlyn Smith’s lighting design is subtle and goes through huge changes only in the bigger scenes, where we revert to a suitably discomfiting lighting scheme. Matt Eller’s sound design is similarly minimalistic, underscoring the emotions of the piece rather than being ostentatious. All of this lays a beautiful foundation for the cast to build their characters and stories upon.

I commend everyone involved for their passion. 10 Years Later is not a play that you put on just because you feel like it; it’s a play you pour your life and soul into because you feel passionately about the issues that it draws attention to. This passion is palpable onstage, and the production matches the passion. A fantastic production of an illuminating play—see it.