LCC Tackles ‘Laramie Project: Ten Years Later’

By | 2013-04-04T09:00:00-05:00 April 4th, 2013|Entertainment|

Matthew Shepard has become a symbol. An idea. He is what hate crimes look like.
And Laramie, WY, the town where he died – a horrible, brutal death: tied to a fence, beaten with the butt of a gun – it too has become a place of symbols and mythology. The place between symbols, mythology and fact where the play Laramie Project: Ten Years Later takes us. Whereas the original play, The Laramie Project ached with the pain of a brutal crime, a community torn apart and in the sudden spotlight of an unflattering media focus, Ten Years Later shows us how such horrific things in America can be papered over, recast, retold, forgotten in some instances. If the Laramie following Matthew Shepard’s death was a visceral gut punch, pulling back the veil of homophobia and violence in America; the Laramie of Ten Years Later is one where the hate motivation is papered over, recast as a story of a drug deal gone bad – in spite of the facts of the case – a place where a town has put a wall between what was, what could be and what is.
Lansing Community College’s Theatre Program tackles this new production from the Tectonic Theater with the simplicity of the original play. This is what theater is supposed to be. It is supposed to make us question ourselves and our humanity. It challenges us to see Matthew Shepard’s killers – Aaron McKinney and Russel Henderson – as human beings. Flawed and human people. In general this ensemble cast does a fine job. And as one might expect from an educational production, some performances are stronger than others. But there are some stand out performances, too.
Jackie Payne as Judy Shepard is stunning. She embodies the mother who has become a voice for equality in America. Payne finds Shepard’s quiet, dignified and true rage at how little has changed since her son was taken from her. And as Catherine Connolly – the out lesbian professor at the University of Wyoming who become the state’s first openly gay lawmaker – Payne takes us on the journey of lawmaker who watches as her colleagues, to her surprise, vote down a marriage amendment in Wyoming.
Michelle Savalla also portrays the editor of the Laramie local newspaper The Boomerang with a solid and convincing performance.
But it is in the roles of the accused killers that two actors truly show use something different. As Russell Henderson, Brennan Hattaway reveals to us a man truly struggling with the implications of what he has done. Not only to himself, but his relationship with his religion, and to Judy and Dennis Shepard and to Matthew Shepard himself. The monster is unveiled as a sad and tragic figure. J Othon Lerma portrays Aaron McKinney and here we see the opposite. Here is the matter of fact monster of the nightmare of the Matthew Shepard murder. Here is a man proud of his new found interest in Nazis, and who admits he doesn’t like homosexuals. Here is a man who says he is happy he killed Matthew Shepard because Matthew Shepard was a predator of younger gay men – a myth proven wrong, but one which McKinney refuses to let go of.
Ten Years Later is a very different story than the original play. As it should be. But it is also a more circumspect play, one which instead of drawing on horror, draws instead on our reflections on what being Laramie WY and being Matthew Shepard – not “Matt” as Romaine Patterson admits at the end – is really about. And it asks us: Have we learned anything in the ten years since the brutal murder shocked America’s conscience? The answer might surprise you.

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