AMAZING GRACE: ‘Laramie’ turns tragedy into triumph, a review

People have always said that there are multiple sides to a conflict. This adage comes from the hope that by listening to opposing viewpoints, tension evaporates to make room for social harmony and peace.

The production of “The Laramie Project” at Highline Community College leaves spectators reflecting on issues such as the death penalty and homophobia. They have done this by revealing the varying beliefs and intimate comments of people living in Laramie, Wyo. – a small town of about 30,000 denizens.

The city of Laramie became a media hotspot in the late ‘90s due to the brutal murder of a gay youth named Matthew Shepard.

He was 21 years old when he was beaten, tortured, tied to a fence in the middle of nowhere, and left to die by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson on Oct. 6, 1998. The two murderers were later arrested, tried, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

“He came into the world premature, and left the world premature,” said Rulon Stacey, portrayed by actor Steven Davis. Stacey was the medical spokesman who gave updates on Shepard’s health to the press until his death on Oct. 12, 1998.

The play outlines the events that follow Shepard’s death through a series of interviews conducted by the Tectonic Theater Group.

As “The Laramie Project” unfolds, the identity, the aura, of Shepard becomes smaller. When one casts aside what mainstream news sources have reported – the vigils, the political marches – audience members are left with a person, another living being, who had to depart the world simply because he was different.

“Whenever I think of Matthew, I think of his incredible beaming smile,” said Romaine Patterson, a close friend of Shepard, played by actress Amanda Rae. “He’d smile at everyone; he made you feel great.”

To people who knew him personally, Shepard was not crucified; he was neither a saint, nor a martyr. He was simply Matt, or as Patterson once called him, “Choo Choo.”

The two-hour long performance shows how both supporters and opponents of homosexuals have lashed out against each other. Caught in between this national attention, were the residents of Laramie.

The stage setting for “The Laramie Project” employs a documentary/courtroom atmosphere, with actors taking turns to speak.

One learns that the so-called “angry” villains who committed the crime were young men, who had individual lives, families, love interests, and hopes for the future.

“What were you thinking?” Sherry Aanenson, Henderson’s landlord, played by actress Lauren Scoville, seemed to contemplate this question on behalf of all those who tried to understand why the two men did what they did. “What the hell were you thinking?”

Towards the end of the play, limousine driver Doug O’Connor another character portrayed by Davis, talked about the importance of being resilient, especially during hard times.

“This whole thing, you see what I’m saying, this whole thing ropes around hope. H-O-P-E.” O’Connor demonstrates that hope is not exclusively for the victims or villains; it is for everyone equally and absolutely. So despite its sad overtones, “The Laramie Project” is not a tragedy; it is a story that rekindles viewers of humankind’s unbreakable spirit.

“The Laramie Project” plays tonight and tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. on Saturday in Building 7. Address of HCC is 2400 S. 240th St., Des Moines, WA.

General admission costs $8 and $7 for students.

This story was originally published by The Thunderword.

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