Those Who Knew Him

Laramie, Wyoming, is set against a big, blue, impossibly beautiful sky. It's also the place where Mathew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay college student, was tied to a fence post at the edge of a wide lonely prairie, then beaten and left for dead by Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. This stark landscape, where the blue of heaven and the darkness of hell intersect, provides the extraordinary backdrop for Moises Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project's docudrama The Laramie Project.

Written from interviews with townsfolk conducted by Tectonic Theater members, the Project cuts close to the bone. The troupe talked to everyone from a local Episcopal priest to a corner coffee shop waitress as they cobbled together a script about Shepard's death and the swirl of media that surrounded it. These small-town characters who tell the story (Shepard never appears) come off as fully wrought and complex. And Kaufman's deft collage of monologues pulled from the interview transcripts captures the confusion and rage of rural America. Smart and painful, the script narrates Shepard's tragedy, but it also attempts to answer profound questions about why such brutal acts occur in a place and time where most people say, "Live and let live."

Under Rob Bundy's direction, eight of Houston's most appealing actors create the 60-some characters who appear in the story. Each is sketched in quick, lithe strokes of words and mannerisms. They resonate with truthful poignancy, raunchy humor and even frightening, gut-punching brutality.

The men are the most moving. Especially good is Rutherford Cravens, who establishes the first surprise of the production with the character of Doc O'Connor. The plain spoken taxi driver argues that "Wyoming people don't care one way or another if you're gay or straight." What he liked most about Matt was that he was "straight" -- er, he pauses, "forward." As much as we like Doc for his shoot-from-the-hip speech and liberal politics ("Never fuck with a Wyoming queer," he says), it's clear that he's not willing to face the ugly truth about his town: Obviously some people did care whether Matthew Shepard was gay.

Drake Simpson's motor-mouthed bartender knows all about Shepard's last night because he served him. He seems almost thrilled to be a part of the show that Shepard's death and the ensuing trial cause, but he also feels guilty about his missed opportunity to stop the crime. Simpson's humanity shows in the way his head tilts and his voice catches when he looks to the empty barstool where Shepard sat. Also strong is Simpson's Aaron McKinney, who seems either too stupid or too cold to understand the magnitude of his crime or his punishment.

Perhaps the most devastating performance comes from Corby Sullivan. As the boy who first found Shepard, he's haunting. He remembers the crumpled mass at the side of the road and his horror when he realized that it was a man. These chilling moments are replayed over and over. Also unforgettable is Sullivan's Andrew Gomez, the saggy-pantsed punk who shares a cell with McKinney. He talks about his amazement at McKinney's decision to kill a "fag" when he's going to have to go to prison and "be a fag" because everyone at the big house is already placing bids on McKinney's ass. The scene is unforgettable for its bleak and hopeless viciousness.

Kirk Markley's elegantly spare set and lighting design add great depth to this production. The wood-planked stage is raked, giving the play an added sense of urgency and understated drama. These stories are not simply strung-together reels of old news footage; they are the laid-bare responses of workaday people to the most unthinkable acts of violence. Many of the interviewees knew Shepard. And many knew the "perps," as the town bartender refers to Henderson and McKinney. Their stories ring with an authentic outrage and, even more moving, a genuine bewilderment at the cruelty of Shepard's death. They are well suited to Markley's set, with sky-blue scrims, television sets flashing images of long western roads and one enormous telephone pole rising out of center stage like a creosote-covered crucifix.

Rob Bundy's direction is sharp and clean and stripped of the morose melodrama that such a story might inspire. Only at the end does the show dip into moments of polemic rage. Mostly, though, Bundy allows his fine cast to tell the stories of Laramie, Wyoming, with the plain dignity and tender mercy that everyone deserves.

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Lee Williams