The Laramie Project at South Pasadena High School is an audacious cry for hope that is a remarkable piece of theatre. Set in the Wyoming town of Laramie, the Moises Kaufman play weaves together an emotional tapestry of shock, pain, anger and healing that takes place after an unspeakable hate crime is committed by two of Laramie’s own. In 1998, college student Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten and left for dead, tied to a fence on the outskirts of Laramie. While the play does reveal exactly what happened, it is mostly focused on the immediate aftermath, when members of the Tectonic Theatre Project come to town and interview over 200 people. Shepard’s murder galvanized not only their community but re-shaped national thought and paved the way for dialogue, hate crime legislation and understanding across political and religious divides. In Laramie especially we see how this event created an environment where change in people became possible through their experience with Matthew himself, with his parents or with the case.
Director Nick Hoffa is brilliant at creating moments and indelible pictures that transcend the genre of documentary theatre, taking the audience on an exquisite journey through the hearts and minds of the people of Laramie. He and his cast boldly capture the essence of the moment in this stirring, courageous production that inspires.
Every single member of this talented ensemble does great work here, playing multiple roles and each giving potent performances that stay with you long after the show ends. The unconventional casting is ingenious especially given that some of the most compelling moments come when charaters portrayed are seemingly furthest from the actors themselves. Aiden Blake is unapologetically indignant as Fred Phelps, the notoriously bigoted minister of the Westboro Baptist Church, and brings a chilling nonchalance to local rancher Murdoch Cooper. Jackson Monical moves seamlessly between his characters and is especially convincing as a local police sergeant and Jonas Slonaker, a Laramie resident who chose to come out after Shepard’s murder.
Anna Gale is an impassioned Zackie Salmon, a gay University administrator who feels unsafe after Shepard’s murder, and Rose McCollough gives a poignant portrayal of UW professor, Catherine Connolly. Grace Chavez is a clear-eyed, empathetic Leigh Fondakowski, one of the lead writers for the Tectonic Theatre Project, while the luminous Katy Nielsen shows the sense of responsibility and purpose felt in her portrayal of theatre professor Rebecca Williker.
What’s more is the laughter to be found in the sadness, these are real people after all, and Wressey Baugham brings his easy charm and comedic precision to the role of bartender Matt Galloway. The engaging Linus Wood gives a brilliant arc to young actor Jedadiah, juxtaposed with the breathtaking, casual indifference of one of the killers. Sydney Davis Denny is funny and heartwarming as the mother of Laramie police officer, Reggie Fluty, played with captivating authenticity by Yoli Patzkowski. Spitfire Isa Recendez gives a brave performance as convict Andrew Gomez and brings fiery rage to Zubaida Ula, the young Muslim woman who defiantly says “we are like this!”
Giving a performance of searing honesty is Seia Gamble as friend and fierce defender of Matthew and creator of Angel Action, Romaine Patterson. There is never one false note from this fine actress. Lindsey Calva is spot on as limousine driver, Doc, and delivers one of the more beautiful moments describing the sparkling lights of Laramie.
Andres Oyaga brings nuance, grace and passion to the role of Father Roger Schmit and is profoundly moving as the hospital spokesman while Christain Villasenor delivers one of the most powerful moments of the show as Matthew’s father, Denis Shepard.
The James Jontz set design is stunning with an extended stage creating a stark landscape while giving the performances an intimate immediacy. Along with an ever-present fence providing an ominous backdrop, are four tv screens that not only draw you into those days immediately following the murder but give a visceral sense of place; walking the streets of Laramie or riding along a peaceful country road. The end result is so much more than watching a play but more a completely immersive, communal experience. It’s a powerful piece of storytelling, full of complex characters and difficult conversations that remind us that Matthew Shepard was our son and that this was our town.
The Laramie Project is produced by South Pasadena High School Drama Club headed by producing team, Elizabeth Bock, Eva Cabbell, and Karenna Senske. Direction by Nick Hoffa. Technical direction by James Jontz. Sound/Video: Violet Main. Lights: Alberto Romero. Crew: Leslie Velasco, Jeanine Talamante. Set Construction: Keira Atkinson, Andrew Buenrostro, Monet Cajayon, Joshua Cruz, Patrick Cruz, Jestene Fernandez, Dean Fuentes, Owen Giles, Jillian Godinez, Justin Hugg, Lauren Lopez, Violet Main, Jack Ortega, Alberto Romero, and Andrew Wilber. House Managers: Amber Chen, Betsy Eaton, Cole Fox, Caden Gordon, Aman Sen, Wysdom Turner-Black. Stage Manager: Sarah Sy. Program Cover Art: Hanna Choi, Ashlyn Kawakami, David Perez Espinosa, Jack Perry, Erin Seo. Poster art: Katherine Rogers.
Fri Nov 9th & Sat Nov 10th, 7pm, and Fri Nov 16th, Sat Nov 17th, 7pm and Sun Nov 18th at 2pm. The Little Theater, South Pasadena High School, 1401 Fremont Ave. South Pasadena. General Admission is $15. Tickets available at the door one half hour before curtain or at SPHS ASB office on campus through Friday Nov. 17.