The Laramie Project

on January 10, 2002 by Annlee Ellingson
   In the fall of 1998, a young gay man was kidnapped, brutally beaten and left to die tied up to a fence post outside Laramie, Wyoming. Discovered 18 hours after the attack, he was rushed to the hospital with severe head wounds. As he lay in a coma, the country held its breath, waiting to see whether he would live or die. Five days later, Matthew Shepard passed away, and the town of Laramie instantly became as infamous as “Waco or Jasper,” in the words of one resident.

   As the story began to unfold, New York City playwright Moises Kaufman became interested in the fate of this small western town, population 26,000, suddenly thrust into the national spotlight. He called up the members of the Tectonic Theater Project and asked if they would travel with him to Laramie. There, the actors conducted more than 200 interviews with its citizens, shaping their very words into a play called “The Laramie Project.” But the film version goes a step further, telling the story of the troupe's experiences in Laramie--their own fears and frustrations--as much as the story of Laramie itself.

   Portrayed by a litany of independent film stars and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project, the people of Laramie are a conflicted bunch: An anonymous rancher couple claims their homophobic religious beliefs don't interfere with their state motto, “Live and let live.” A drama student chooses a scene from “Angels in America,” despite his parents' objections, for a scholarship competition simply because he wants to win it. The policewoman who freed Matthew finds herself at risk for HIV because of it, calling into question her professionalism at the scene of the crime. And residents who are at first defensive of their town, saying, “This is not a place where things like this happen,” later realize Laramie is a place where things like this do happen, because it did.

   But the troupe found that good can come out of evil. The annual homecoming parade, an oddly celebratory tradition in a time of sorrow, was followed by a small band of students walking for Matthew Shepard. By the time the procession reached the end of its route, the tag at the end was bigger than pageant itself. And, in a widely televised event, Matthew's best friend made homemade angel costumes and organized a silent protest at the trial of one of the perpetrators, where a visiting evangelist was preaching loudly against gays.

   Intercutting reenacted interviews with Laramie residents and dramatized scenes of the murder trials with actual news footage from period, Kaufman creates an eerie sense of not only being there at the time of these events but the very night Matthew was killed. “Dawson's Creek” star Joshua Jackson, particularly, utilizes his charm while stretching his dramatic muscles as the barkeep who keeps going over in his head how he could have prevented the crime. As he retells his version of the events in his bar that night, the camera lingers on the stool where Matthew sat, at the pool tables where he first visited with his murderers and at the door out which they left together, recreating what it must have felt like for the Tectonic troupe members to have been there, hearing that story. And one's heart genuinely aches when a pair of headlights drives through the darkness, coming to rest on the stretch of fence where he was found the next day.

   Funded by HBO Films and premiering on the cable channel in March, “The Laramie Project” feels more appropriate for the smaller scale, where its tendencies toward melodrama and self-importance (however minor) will be less obvious. There, too, it will find a wider audience to revisit this story that otherwise would be too easily forgotten.    Starring Steve Buscemi, Jeremy Davies, Clea Duvall, Dylan Baker, Peter Fonda, Ben Foster, Janeane Garofalo, Joshua Jackson, Terry Kinney, Laura Linney, Amy Madigan, Camryn Manheim, Summer Phoenix, Christina Ricci and Mark Webber. Directed by Moises Kaufman. Written by Moises Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project. Produced by Declan Baldwin. No distributor set. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 97 min.

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