Since 1990, I’ve attended more than 25 plays at Augustana College, yet I’ve never seen one that made better use of the Potter Hall stage than The Laramie Project.
Potter Hall is a three-quarter thrust theatre seating 144 people, and it’s ideal for intimately scaled works and ensemble-driven pieces; you can pay specific attention to one performer yet not miss the reactions of anyone else. The Laramie Project, both intimately scaled and ensemble-driven, proves a perfect fit for its venue, and if there’s any detriment to the current Laramie Project being performed there, it’s in that number “144”: Given its run of eight performances, only 1,152 people, at most, will be able to see it, meaning thousands of you are out of luck. For The Laramie Project deserves as large an audience as possible, not for the nature – or even the quality – of the script itself, but for how spectacularly Augustana has presented it. This production is thrillingly good.
(Full disclosure: I was a theatre major at Augustana in the ’80s. But for anyone wondering whether my opinions about its department’s works are tainted by personal biases, ask around: Even when I was a student performer there, I acknowledged it when one of our shows sucked.)
The experience is enhanced when you consider how tough The Laramie Project is to pull off effectively. Conceived by Moises Kaufman and members of his Tectonic Theater Project, the play details the aftermath of the Matthew Shepard murder within his hometown of Laramie, Wyoming, and its central conceit is to use the townspeople’s own recollections for its dialogue; barring some professional polish, what you hear the characters say is what was actually said when they were interviewed by Kaufman and company. Laramie’s subject matter is achingly moving – with the 21-year-old Shepard’s killing a result of homophobia, intolerance, and hate, how could it not be? – yet even professional productions (including the acclaimed HBO movie) can get bogged down trying to find an appropriate style for the piece, and trying to make the naturalistic dialogue, complete with the characters’ touching manglings of the English language (“ATZ” for “AZT,” the adjective “intoxificated”) believable without being condescending. Any take on Laramie has to give its subject matter due reverence while simultaneously finding ways to work convincingly as drama, and Augustana’s production, through exquisite performances and the fluidity of Jeffrey Coussens’ direction, walks that fine line with superlative skill and great care. It duly honors Matthew Shepard, yet you don’t feel the slightest bit heartless for also feeling thoroughly entertained.
One of Laramie’s narrative conventions is its continual onstage introduction (and re-introduction) of its characters, which makes sense considering the more-than-60 speaking roles. But damned if this production doesn’t make that convention nearly superfluous; this cast of 10 gives each of the characters such distinction that there’s no mistaking one for another. I’m a little awed by just how well this ensemble works their material and works with one another; there’s no forced emotion on display, no grandstanding, yet the overall effect is intensely moving. There’s so little artifice in the performances that whenever an actor assumes a new role – the cast’s full talents are revealed gradually, throughout the piece – it’s disorienting in the best way possible.
Singling out favorite performers would be futile; each of Laramie’s ensemble finds new ways to surprise and impress with every new scene. Wilder Anderson has an excitable, earnest appeal as Jedediah Schultz and then performs some funny, vivid character work, much like Christine Barnes’ effortless transformations from soulfully sweet Trish Steger to much harder-edged figures. Brian Bengtson is an extraordinarily strong comedic actor as both Doc O’Connor and Matt Galloway – the audience is grateful for his moments of high comedy – and Hannah Kalk provides Laramie’s most fleshed-out character, policewoman Reggie Fluty, with beautiful focus and good humor. Todd Kempel assays a tricky role – Father Schmit – and plays it with heartbreaking simplicity, while Susanne Kepley’s Romaine emerges as the heart of Laramie, with her Zubaida Ula as its soul.
Jeff LaRocque can make you teary-eyed with his subtle economy of emotion; the variety in Danielle Suits’ portrayals is most impressive; Cori Veverka gives her roles breadth of detail and tremendous range. And Charlie Zamastil plays at least seven major roles – his Dr. Cantway and Harry Woods being the most moving – and makes them all feel true. (Through a printing error, this actor’s biography is listed on an insert instead of within the Laramie program itself, but Zamastil, like the others, is so good that he deserves a page all to himself.)
I can’t imagine how this group could be any finer, or how Jeffrey Coussens could have directed Laramie better. Coussens, always gifted at guiding large ensembles with ease, comes through with one directorial inspiration after another: his placement of actors during the interview scenes, when characters are both literally and figuratively “on stage”; his use of multimedia effects on a scrim, culminating in an emotionally devastating scene of Jeff LaRocque seeming to appear on live television; his unorthodox, highly effective casting of women in male roles; his staggeringly beautiful candlelight vigil – Laramie is inherently an actor’s showcase, yet it’s astonishing how many things there are to look at in this production. Augustana’s The Laramie Project, the most impressive two-and-a-half hours I’ve enjoyed since St. Ambrose’s Death of a Salesman, is a triumph for all concerned; I’ve never felt so lucky to be one out of 1,152.
For tickets, call (309)794-7236