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Faces of ‘Laramie’

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

On Oct. 7, 1998, Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, was beaten savagely and left for dead, tied to a fence on the edge of Laramie, Wyo. Five days later, in a coma in the hospital, he died.

His death sparked a national debate.

Within weeks of his death, Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project were in Laramie, hoping to find out what happened, why, and why in Laramie. In six visits over the next 18 months, members of the New York-based group conducted 200 interviews in Laramie. They distilled their interviews and the trial testimony into "The Laramie Project" - a theater piece that was staged in Denver, in Manhattan and, eventually, in Laramie.

The script for "The Laramie Project" - presented this week at Rye Country Day School and at Pelham Memorial High School - is the edited transcript of the town's response to the horrific event. The words are not those of a playwright. These are the citizens of Laramie talking: doctors, police officers, clergy, townspeople, witnesses, and friends. Real people.

By the play's end, the audience knows that Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney were convicted in Matthew Shepard's murder. The details come in glimpses from many conceivable angles, after the fact.

Those angles converge this week on two local stages. Pelham and Rye Country Day are not the first local schools to perform "Laramie"; it's been done at Croton-Harmon High School and in Stamford, Conn., and at the Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, to name a few. White Plains High School senior Rachel Paul is hoping to direct "Laramie" in the spring, if she gets the go-ahead from the administration.

The casts and directors in Rye and in Pelham approach "Laramie" with near reverence; this is, as one student says, not "Arsenic and Old Lace." This is theater meant to provoke, to inspire, to educate. Its subject matter, all involved say, is important for high-school students to hear. It deals with tolerance, ignorance, prejudice, the media, religion and inclusion. And it is not beyond the talents of high school students to perform, their advisers say. In Pelham, a cast of 34 plays the 67 characters; in Rye, the cast numbers 23.


John Orefice, a 27-year teacher at Pelham, had it planned. His fall show this year was going to be a collage of different scenes that explained what theater is.

"I said ‘Let's do plays about plays - a little Pirandello, a little ‘Waiting for Godot' - so the audience learns how theater operates."

At the auditions, students were asked to prepare monologues. One got up and read the speech delivered by Dennis Shepard, Matthew's father, at the end of "The Laramie Project." In the speech, Dennis Shepard addresses the court, and one of his son's killers, during the trial's sentencing phase.

He talks about his son, wonders what he would have become, talks about how beloved he was and how his death was not in vain. And then he turns to the topic of the death penalty. Keeping his composure, balancing rage and pain and loss and hope, Dennis Shepard tells the judge he doesn't want his son's killer put to death, saying that he was granting him his life, "because of Matthew."

"It was an open audition so everybody's listening to the monologue," Orefice recalls, "and as this boy's reading this, you could feel the silence vibrate. And I said to myself, ‘Maybe this is the better choice.' "

A better choice, perhaps, but one that has been met with controversy in other locales. In September, the same month that Pelham was holding its auditions, Amy Gordon, the principal at Southridge High School in Beaverton, Ore., canceled that school's production of "Laramie," ruling that the play's use of profanity fell under the district's "controversial matters" policy. Gordon did not rule out the play being approved at a later date, but told The Oregonian newspaper she needed time "to prepare our students, our staff and our community."

Orefice says he has kept his principal informed and is working with guidance counselors at the school to use the play as a tool to discuss respect - a theme in the district this year. "If that's the theme, then this follows that," he says. But changes may be made to "make it audience friendly for high school," he says. "The language is not gratuitous. It's part of what the text is and hopefully that plays effectively."

In Rye, theater teacher and "Laramie" director Cary Fuller says the play wasn't hard to sell to the administration, after he agreed to tone down the profanity.

"Once it was read, we talked about the language and moved ahead," he says.

Fuller, who has been at the school since 1967, also sees the play as furthering the school administration's goals.

"Our Health Day last year dealt with prejudice. The keynote speaker spoke about name-calling and that kind of opened my mind to the possibility. She even mentioned Matthew Shepard."

"I just thought if we're ever going to do it, since other schools had done it, let's try it," Fuller says. "I don't think Rye Country Day could have said no."


Sarah Leary, 17, a Pelham senior, plays the emergency-room doctor who treated Matthew Shepard in the emergency room.

"Every time I read my lines, they give me goosebumps," she says. "I talk about how I took care of Matthew and, two doors down, I took care of one of his killers. The irony of that is, like, wow! She's looking at them and she says ‘They were two kids and they were both my patients. And I took care of both of them.' And she says ‘I wonder if that's how God feels when he looks at us.' That line that gives me chills. It's so incredible."

Pelham senior Alex Nagorsky, 17, was the auditioner whose monologue prompted Orefice to choose "Laramie." Nagorsky plays Dennis Shepard.

"It's definitely the most challenging acting I've ever done. I can't relate to this character because I've obviously never experienced that kind of tragedy. I did my research, to find out about the Shepard family, to be able to go on stage and convey so many different emotions at the same time. … He can't go ballistic. He has the murderer of his son right next to him and he's telling him he's going to let them live. You have to be very brave to be able to do that."

In Pelham, all the roles are played by students; in Rye, teachers play some parts.

Dick Pike, who teaches AP English and Psychology at Rye Country Day, plays Dennis Shepard. Pike says when he rehearses it at home, he can't get through it without breaking down. But on stage he keeps his composure. Finding the balance, between losing it at home and keeping it all in on stage is what Pike, a 34-year teacher at the school, is up against.

"I don't want to completely break down on stage, which could happen if I don't watch it," he says. "It's very hard for me even to read it without getting extremely emotional about it," he says. Pike says he wants to get it just right, "for Dennis' sake."

And who plays Matthew Shepard? That, says James De Santis, a 15-year-old sophomore from Rye, is the fascinating thing about "The Laramie Project."

"It's interesting that the whole play is about a character you never meet. You just interpret him through the way that people react to the incident."

Lake, the Rye Country Day junior, says "All you can do is take in what these real people have said and learn from it. Despite the fact that some of these people are appalled by the fact that he was gay and that a Baptist reverend says `I hope he took a moment before he slipped into a coma to reflect on his lifestyle.' Despite how despicable that sounds, I think all you can do is learn from it."


Jon Delikat, a 17-year-old senior at Rye Country Day, says playing real people requires an actor's extra commitment.

"You have to make sure every line is spot-on, because these were real people and they really did say these things. … In any other play, you can really take it in whatever direction you want. But these. How do you put your own spin on a person who really exists?"

Emily Lake, 16, a junior from Stamford, Conn., talked about the structure of the play, how it's not broken into scenes, but into moments, brief glimpses, short speeches. That is not a gimmick, Lake says.

"I really feel a sense of `momentness' to the play because it's real people and it's real emotion and it's raw. And I think they're not scenes, they're not scripted. It's so real I think it has to be captured in a moment."

Adds Philip Waller, a junior from Purchase: "It's like windows into the life. It's not like a play. You get to see little snippets of the story."

Delikat has performed in "Pippin," "South Pacific" and, last year, in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night." None of those was like "Laramie," he says. Reading the play as a cast for the first time was "kind of uncharted territory. … Sitting there reading the lines, you could tell by the looks on people's faces, by the way people were reading it and pausing and saying, `Wait. Am I supposed to say that?' I've never done a play like this."

Pelham's Nagorsky agrees.

"This isn't the type of play, like `Arsenic and Old Lace' last year, where you'd see it to have a good time and go out to Starbucks afterwards and talk about `Oh, that was a funny part.' This is the type of play that you want people to sit there in their seat and think about what they just saw."

It's what Orefice calls "when the play becomes a teacher."

"Once the words are delivered and parents and kids start to sit together at dinner and talk about their response to the play ... it will be a frame of reference and context for discussion of all sorts of issues," he says.


Not the least among them might be how recently the event in the play took place, whether it could happen here, and the violence of name-calling.

These events - and the citizens' reactions to them - are still recent history, a point not lost on either cast, it seems. Says Rebecca Sassoon, a 15-year-old sophomore at Pelham: "This didn't happen a long time ago. I'm 15 and I was 8 and, although I don't have a recollection of it, I was alive and that's a pretty big impact."

Adds Sarah Leary with a laugh: "Someone the other night said, `They wore jeans back then, didn't they?' "

It was recent, yes, but remote.

Daria Marinelli, 17, a Rye Country Day senior from Hartsdale, says "Laramie" has opened her eyes to a wider world.

"Wyoming is a long way away from New York," she says. "We can say `Well, that's not how it is here.' I think doing this play has helped me see that we're a country and the problems out there are also our problems. I had a friend who said, `That would never happen here,' and maybe it would and maybe it wouldn't, but I just told her to come see the show."

Lake says she connects with one of the lines, when a character says "Laramie needs to own this crime," and not ignore it.

Waller expands on the idea: "Sure we may live in a community where people aren't tied to fences and beaten to death. But you get name-calling. And there's hate everywhere. `We have to own it' can apply to the country, the world and until everyone takes a look at themselves and says "part of it may be what I think," then it can't really be solved.

Daniel Levine-Peres, a 14-year-old freshman at Pelham, saw his brother in "The Laramie Project" at LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts near Lincoln Center. He says the play's comments about name-calling really hit home.

"I used that word, `faggot,' so frequently and in the play it says (name-calling) is the seed of hate."

Levine-Peres said he wants people to have the same reaction he had when he first saw the play.

"I want people to leave the theater saying, `Wow, that moved me. That really touched me,' " he says. "I want this show to help open eyes."

Sassoon says the moments about name-calling resonated with her, too.

"I think it's important that we're a high school doing this because kids aren't really aware of the language that they use. They can hurt people. I don't want to sound corny, but we're the future and what we know as kids will be what we teach our kids as adults."

Nagorsky says he has gay friends who were being harassed last year, prompting him to write an editorial in the school's newspaper.

"I had one friend whose car got keyed - that said "fag" - and that kind of stuff. … It's not just something that happens in Wyoming. It happens everywhere, even right here in this 2 1/2-square-mile town."

But Nagorsky is sure "Laramie" can have an impact.

"There's no way you can walk into this show with a closed mind and walk out with the same opinion. You're going to walk out and think twice before you key somebody's car again."

If these students sound wiser and more sensitive than you recall being at 15, 16 and 17, you've been paying attention, Orefice says.

"They're miles ahead of my generation with this question. ... They naturally understand what it's like for people who are different. We don't need to do a lesson plan on it. It's something that everyone in the cast had thought about, felt, seen and has an innate understanding of. They understand the importance of acting this out as a work of art. I give them a lot of credit for being open-minded."