Our Jacked-Up Town

Legendary Journalism 101 story: columnist Jimmy Breslin, searching for a unique angle on the burial of JFK, chose to interview the dead president's gravedigger. “Look for the gravedigger” is now newspaperspeak for finding the human dimension in a Big Story, and it's integral to the success of the Tectonic Theater Project's The Laramie Project, an investigation into the murder of Matthew Shepard.

Shepard's story requires only the barest recap: in 1998, the gay University of Wyoming student was picked up by two men in a Laramie bar. They drove him to the city limits, beat him ruthlessly and crucified him on a wooden fence.

The grisly attack was a media sensation—for a few weeks, at any rate. As the cameras left town, Tectonic Theater Project members arrived in Laramie, visiting six times and interviewing more than 200 residents, including cops, clergy, bartenders and limo drivers. Using those interviews, court transcripts and their observations on life in Laramie, the company crafted this experimental play, one of the most absorbing and moving pieces of theater you're ever likely to see.

Less about Shepard than Laramie, less about a hate crime than about the reactions of residents to that crime, this is oral history at its most effective and probing. More self-consciously artsy than the oral-history projects conducted by Anna Deveare Smith and frequently as entertaining as the examinations of urban life pioneered by Culture Clash, The Laramie Project succeeds in being terrific theatrical entertainment and balanced, sensitive documentary—Studs Terkel meets Thornton Wilder's Our Town.The result is spellbinding.

The Tectonic Theater Company—including director Moiss Kaufman and company members Leigh Fondakowski, Stephen Belber, Greg Pierotti and Stephen Wangh—is a New York-based artists' collective with more than a few gay artists. You might therefore expect The Laramie Projectto be a gay-pride theater project that turns Shepard into a martyred saint—thanks in large part to his unusual manner of execution—and uses his murder to condemn redneck residents in a frontier town and, by extension, all of white America.

That isn't the case. No flames are fanned, no easy targets found. While blame is affixed to those who deserve it—the two men who killed Shepard, the churches that abdicated moral responsibility in the wake of a controversy over a dead gay man, the national and international media that descended on the town, the many naive and oblivious townsfolk who never quite realized the extent of fear and hatred in their midst—the piece is actually a subtle look at a complex town of 27,000 people.

Like so many great works of literature, The Laramie Projectis about home, about the process of fitting into a community. It keenly counters the comment you hear repeated by decent people in any town ravaged by violence from within, towns like Columbine, Waco, Jasper, Laramie: things like this don't happen here. But as one character, a Muslim college student, states simply, this is the place where this happened, and for any community to claim it couldn't happen here is a crime in itself. If the play has a message, that's it: face the truth of the hatred buried in our genes.

As sobering and riveting as it is—especially in the gripping, graphic judge's description of the savage beating carried out on Shepard's diminutive frame (the only part of his face not covered in blood was where his tears flowed) and a masterfully eloquent courtroom address to one of his son's killers by Shepard's father—The Laramie Projectis also very funny and terrifically entertaining. The company's members display an awesome ability to capture the vocal and physical rhythms of the subjects they interviewed.

Those subjects keep The Laramie Projectfrom pushing any particular agenda or moving into mere propaganda. They are average and exceptional but almost always eloquent: the Catholic priest who led the first candlelight vigil for Shepard in Laramie observes that his community needs to recognize that Shepard's killers are also teachers, with an acutely painful lesson about the community in which they were raised.

It's a troubling lesson, though: maybe it's through exploring and accepting our inhumanity, rather than denying and rejecting it, that we can truly start to learn what it is to be human.

The Laramie Project at La Jolla Playhouse's Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Dr., La Jolla, (858) 550-1010. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. Through Sept. 2. $28-$42.

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