This was a deep, serious, thought and tear provoking event. Based on months of interviews by Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project, the play chronicles the death of Matthew Shepard through the eyes of the 22,687 inhabitants of Laramie, Wyoming.
Tied so tightly that the first officer on the scene struggled to cut the ropes, beaten so badly that his face was unrecognizable, he bled and cried and suffered alone until a random bicyclist passed the lonely buck fence in the wind. The only clean place on his body were the tracks of tears on his cheeks.
Even the plain facts are horrifying. At 5'2" tall.... or maybe taller, depending on whose telling the story.... Matt was a 22 year old student at the University of Wyoming, there in Laramie. He was gay. His murderers were drinking, looking for trouble, and offended by his sexual orientation. All of that came out in their confessions; the crime was solved with remarkable speed and efficiency. The police made sure to get it right.
But the facts are not the center of the play. How could this happen? Who are we as a town? What could I, personally have done to alter the outcome? How can I live comfortably within my skin when my sexual orientation is at the center of a homicide? For there was no doubt that gay panic was at the heart of this crime. The perpetrators admitted it. The townsfolk discussed it. The audience soaked it in.
Directed by Art Almquist, People Magazine's 2013 Reader's Choice Teacher of the Year, thirty students at Tucson High Magnet School drew us into their world, which wasn't their world except during the eight run schedule. It was hard to imagine them living any other way.
The limo driver, Doc... Officer Reggie Fluty... Romaine Patterson.... I know that there were students on the stage performing the roles but, in the moment, I was unaware of any difference between the human saying the lines and the human who told them to the Tectonic Theatre Project fifteen years ago.
Fifteen years ago these kids were riding tricycles and eating Otter Pops. Fifteen years ago Judy and Dennis Shepard's oldest son, his father's hero, sat at the corner of his local bar, drinking and taking in the scene. Did he come on to the driver of the truck by placing his hand on an unwelcoming thigh? Did that prompt punches to the face and blows to the head with the butt of a gun? Was he kidnapped or did he go willingly, looking for a ride home after a late night out? Again, the facts are less important than the reactions surrounding them.
The religious leaders' intolerance.... the don't flaunt it in my face diners in the coffee shop.... the classmates and the educators and the waitress and the physicians and the others who lived and worked in Laramie and shared their thoughts are the center of this remarkable work. Staged plainly, with straight back chairs moved from side to center to side again the only props, the students manage to create a fully fleshed out world. You can hear the wind. You can feel Matt's fear. You ache and cringe and writhe with each new character.
That's the kind of social change I can get behind.
The play ran 2 hours and 40 minutes. Initially, we were appalled. It was high school theater, after all. It could have been awful... slow... ponderous... miscued... un-lit... unintelligible. Instead, we were sorry to see it end. The standing ovation was generalized, not just parents and BFF's but strangers, as we were, there for an afternoon, with no particular allegiance to the school or the players.
No particular allegiance until now, that is.