Those who know the story behind The Laramie Project won’t be surprised by the clearly western-themed staging that sees Ad Astra’s intimate theatre space turned into a saloon-style bar. The cowboy country aesthetic extends to the flannelette, denim and cowboy boots of the beer drinkers. There is even a cowboy-hat-clad musician (Andrew Palmer) to add the occasional guitar accompaniment to proceedings.
The multilayered production of the non-fiction text tells a devastating story … the reaction to the 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. He was brutally beaten after he visited a local bar and was later found unconscious tied to a fence on the high plains of Laramie, Wyoming. It was an event which brought international attention to a town in which these things don’t happen (except they do) and paved the way for the passage of federal U.S. hate crimes legislation.
The play draws on hundreds of hours of interviews conducted by the theatre company with residents of the Wyoming town following the kidnapping and murder, company members’ own journal entries and published news reports. More than 60 characters portrayed on stage are all based on real people trying to grapple with the vicious crime.
The structure brings together people that wouldn’t be together in real life. We witness the defense of church doctrine and the victim blaming of ‘normal folk’ alongside the words of those saddened by bigotry. A thought-provoking distinction is made between a caring and humane Catholic priest and a fundamentalist Protestant minister.
Michelle Carey’s clean direction ensures a well-paced production as its nine actors play a rage of roles, including the youths who committed the crime, although not Shepard. While verbatim theatre can be difficult to master, Ad Astra rises to the challenge of making the production a dynamic one, thanks to the realism that members of the cast brings to their performances. Simple costume additions and adjustments help the audience to follow the actors in character as they jump from role to role without resorting to caricatures.
Kirsty Pickering gives a gripping performance as Officer Reggie Fluty, the deputy sheriff who is potentially infected by HIV after handling Shepard’s blood by cutting him down from the fence. Sam Webb is particularly memorable in his late-show role as Shepard’s father Dennis. Also delivering a subtly nuanced performance is Chris Nguyen, particularly as the Laramie resident who almost by chance finds Shepard tied to the fence.
The company contextualises a play about words without action by including projections of key details and photos as poignant reminders of the human tragedy that remains central to the work. While the show illustrates the difficulty in settling upon a common narrative on what Matthew Shepard’s life and death meant for Laramie, it also honours the battle scars of a societal past not entirely relegated to history.
Indeed, in a world where hate crimes and discrimination still make headlines, The Laramie Project resounds as convincingly as ever. This is a raw and real theatre experience that will stay with you long after the final applause as a reminder of why sharing stories is so important.