TV

Students do justice to real-life sequel

We see the face of hate, of love and of indifference in the South Puget Sound Community College production of "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later."

On Oct. 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard was beaten and left to die tied to a fence in the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. He died six days later. A month after the murder, members of Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie and conducted interviews with the people of the town. From these interviews they wrote the play “The Laramie Project.” The characters in the play were citizens of Laramie and Tectonic cast members playing themselves. Every word was taken directly from the transcripts of their interviews.

Ten years later, members of Tectonic Theater Project returned to Laramie to find out what transpired since they were there, resulting in this new play in which many of the same people talk about the events and changes in attitudes. Significantly included in this update are interviews with the murderers, Aaron McKinney (played by Justin Smith) and Russell Henderson (played by Ben Rushing), and Matthew’s parents Dennis and Judy Shepard (Craig Donald and Jeanine Kuehn).

This is a particularly challenging play for director Don Welch for a number of reasons: Because he is working with a mixed cast of seasoned actors and student actors, most of whom have little or no experience; because there are no sets or props other than a few projected images, risers and a half-dozen chairs, thereby putting everything squarely on the shoulders of the actors; and finally because the issues dealt with are hard issues that audience members may be uncomfortable with: issues of homophobia, cover-up and denial.

The simple arrangement of chairs and the dramatic lighting are highly effective. Credit Christopher Gaston, serving as technical director and light and sound designer.

The actors Welch brought in who have acting experience are outstanding, most notably Karen Johnson, who plays five different Laramie residents. Johnson, who usually plays comedy, proves that she has significant dramatic skills.

Kuehn is an anchor of strength in three roles. She nails the character of Deb Thomsen, a heartless newspaper editor. She is believable as college professor Catherine Connelly, and she inhabits the role of Judy Shepard with heartfelt passion.

Ryan Hobart fills a number of very different roles with the skill of a much more experienced actor, seamlessly transforming himself from a cowboy feigning indifference to a frustrating and heartbroken friend of Matthew Shepherd, among other roles.

The actors playing the two murderers were both excellent, with gestures and voice inflections that brought these men to life. The way Rushing kept looking down at the floor was especially effective, but it made it almost impossible to hear what he was saying. Smith portrayed murderer Aaron McKinney in a truly creepy manner.

Alex Bergman as priest Father Roger and Kevin McCarthy as cast member Andy Paris recited their lines rather than speaking them in a natural manner. Other actors bobbled lines. Such lapses are forgivable in a student production and do not significantly mar the overall excellence of the play.

This is an emotionally drenching play. It is not easy to watch, but it should be seen. As a friend of Matthew’s (played by K.T. Cox) points out, there is a dichotomy here between “Matthew Shepard” as myth, folklore and a symbol of our culture, and a very real “Matt,” lost son and friend. This production does justice to both.

alec@alecclayton.com

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