review by Janet I. Martineau
“We are like this...we are like this.”
That line uttered by one of the characters in the Midland Center Stage production of “The Laramie Project,” quite frankly, led to a lousy night of sleep for me on Friday night after seeing the show at the Midland Center for the Arts.
It rattles me still at mid-day Saturday in writing this review.
But first a word about the production.
“The Laramie Project” is, simply put, is one of the most strongly directed and superbly acted plays in the history of the Midland Center for the Arts -- and we have seen most of them since the facility opened 40 years ago.
Granted the play itself is a gem of writing and with intense emotions. But director Keeley Stanley-Bohn and her ensemble cast of 16 playing nearly 90 characters deliver a performance of it that makes time stand still.
Friday night’s audience was whisper quiet, did not bolt during its long running time, and a goodly number stayed for the talk-back with the cast -- baring, often quite eloquently, their souls about the show’s theme and Midland. That, folks, is a show that connects.
For those unfamiliar with it, the play is based on a series of 400 interviews with the residents of Laramie, Wyo., after the hate crime beating death of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old HOMOSEXUAL college student.
All of the people depicted are real, and their comments from the interviews distilled here are numbing, insightful, funny, hateful, compassionate......
The murder took place in 1998 and the play debuted in 2000. What left me sleepless was that in those 14 years since the event we have not progressed as much as we may have thought.
One of the lines in the play goes “Waco, Jasper, Lararmie” -- all the names of towns having to deal with horrific human rights incidents. And this year we now add Sanford to it -- the Florida town in the crosshairs with an innocent black teen-ager gunned down by an overly zealous neighborhood watch worker.
The “we are like this” line in the play is uttered by a scarf-wearing Islamic woman -- and we all know about how that has evolved since 9/11.
And one of the characters is the Westboro Baptist Church hate-monger minister Fred Phelps -- who back in 1998 in Laramie spewed his venom and was surrounded by winged angels blocking him yet who today is still at work disrupting the funerals of servicemen killed in action.
“We are like this. We are like this.”
And despite the play’s overwhelming presence of positive people from the Laramie population, we cannot get past the fact that not that much has changed.
But back to the Midland production
This is an ensemble performance, and every single one of its 16 members nails it. No easy task with all those multiple roles. A few lines here, next person, a few lines there.
Paul Viele is at one moment a sympathetic, kindly soft-spoken priest and the next minute the spewing Phelps, with a kinda goofy limo driver in between. Chris Krause is a funny, antsy bartender who wishes he had done more and later one of the bone-chilling killers. Larry Levy is a judge, a gay man and Matthew’s heart-broken father.
In a flash, they and the others in the cast switch personalities and voice patterns. And in each of those personalities are wonderful nuances and shadings and inflections. They pause in speaking sometimes, as normal people do rather than actors. Their voices break with emotion. Their eyes flash and get teary. Their bodies tense and then slump. Sometimes they whisper and other times they bellow (and in Viele’s case, he also mimes Phelps, no words coming out but his face contorting in horrific hate as he mouths words).
When it came to specific characters, Gabriel Klotz broke our heart as the bicyclist who found Matthew and cannot get it out of his mind. Frances Martinez rattled the soul as the cop first on the scene where Matthew was murdered. Also connecting were Sonja Roden as an angry and frightened lesbian college professor, Daniel Kettler as the hospital administrator with his press conferences, Cheryl Levy as a doctor describing Shepard’s wounds, Bill Anderson as a detective barely keeping himself in check when interviewing one of the killers.
God what a cast filled with standout performances.
And through it all Stanley-Bohn, on a sparse set, creates human vignette after vignette that sticks in the mind.
“The Laramie Project” runs through Sunday. For a show capturing the very essence of humanity and inhumanity in one small town nothing beats it.
Because “we are like this.”