Ford’s Theatre’s performance of The Laramie Project last Friday night was a full house, and the house was a house of God. Barred from performing in its own 661-seat space due to the federal government shutdown—the theater is partially funded by the National Park Service—Ford’s arranged to stage a pair of free performances just around the corner, at First Congregational United Church of Christ, and later announced that it would mount a short run of paid performances there through Oct. 15.
While Ford’s agreed to let me cover Friday’s performance as a news event, the theater asked that The Laramie Project not be reviewed until it can be seen in its intended venue—though its official press performance had already taken place in a rehearsal room at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company three nights earlier. So I’ll abstain from praising the ease and conviction with which each member of the eight-person cast—featuring workaday ringers like Holly Twyford, Craig Wallace, Kimberly Gilbert, and Mitchell Hébert—slips in and out of multiple roles, or the unfussy manner of Matthew Gardiner’s direction. Let it suffice to say that Friday night’s homespun performance lacked nothing.
The documentary-style play feels uniquely suited to a church or community center, given its attempt at a panoramic-yet-nuanced portrait of a small Wisconsin town grappling with a vicious crime: the fatal beating and torture of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay college student, in 1998. Comprised largely of snippets of interviews with residents conducted during a series of six research trips to Laramie by members of the Tectonic Theater Project, the play has the actors address their lines to the audience far more often than to one another, and there are at least two scenes of religious leaders addressing their congregations from the pulpit.
The Shepard case started a national conversation about whether legislation specifically outlawing hate crimes against LGBT victims should be enacted, and to its credit, The Laramie Project makes room for multiple perspectives on that and other questions. Despite its widespread acceptance—it’s had hundreds of revivals since its 2000 debut—the play is a sincere exploration, not a piece of agitprop. Tectonic returned to Laramie to create a follow-up work in 2008. President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law in 2009.
In brief curtain speech, Ford’s Theatre Executive Director Paul Tetreault noted that the weekend marked the 15th anniversary of Shepard’s murder, and pointed out the cast arrived at the church together for the first time at 2 p.m. Friday, leaving them just hours to adapt to the unfamiliar venue.
Ford’s Theater staff distributed all 300 of he first-come, first-served free tickets they had made available starting 6:30 p.m., one hour before curtain time, according to Marketing and Communications Director Liza Lorenz. She estimated that another 50 people turned away at the door accepted free tickets for tonight’s free performance. Another 40 people, she said, who were shut out Friday and unable to today, were given coupons to purchase tickets for The Laramie Project at Ford’s Theatre, whenever it reopens, for the discounted price of $12 each.
Tetreault says he’d wanted to keep the production in the same neighborhood as Ford’s, but fretted that moving it to another theater space would “come with expectations,” pointing out that the sets, video projections, and blocking were all designed for the historic theater. The church is a good substitute, he says, because it would serve “the communal experience” of The Laramie Project while making it obvious that it was being staged in at makeshift venue.
Most of the audience members I spoke with said they’d received word of the special performance from Ford’s itself. Craig Marina, who’d received a call from the theater inviting him to the church, said that the various testimonies reminded him of when he’d been impaneled on a grand jury for five weeks. Brenda Mase, who was seated in the front row, said she’d been planning to buy a ticket to The Laramie Project but hadn’t yet when she got an e-mail announcing the free performance. The two women seated behind me were the mother and sister of cast member Paul Scanlan, who’d told them about it.
(Although Ford’s Theatre, a national historic site, will remain closed for the duration of the government shutdown, The Laramie Project’s companion exhibit “Not Alone: The Power of Response,” remains open through Nov. 3. The exhibit is in the Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership, which is not operated by the federal government. It includes a selection of letters sent to Matthew Shepard’s parents following his attack as well as a composite photograph by Jeff Sheng of the view from the fence outside Laramie where Shepard’s attackers left him to die.)
When Friday’s show ended, the audience leapt to its feet. Given the piety of the subject matter and the fact of the venue change, the standing ovation couldn’t help but feel like a forgone conclusion. Which is a shame, because the actors had truly earned it.
Photo by Carol Rosegg courtesy Ford’s Theatre