Much of the charm of live theatre comes from the truth that anything can go wrong at any time. Much like a healthy human body, an error-free theatrical performance is a miracle of luck and many, many systems all managing not to fail at the same time. Of course, like the human body, live theatre can have sudden and unexpected problems, and the opening night of The Laramie Project, produced by AstonRep, had perhaps the most dramatic snafu I’ve seen onstage in my five years as a critic: the wiring blew on a light fixture and it caught fire. Luckily, the stage management team and staff of the Raven Theatre acted swiftly and kept everyone safe, evacuating the audience from the theatre for a short period and restarting the show after receiving the all-clear from the fire department.
What was most remarkable about this event, though, was not the sheer drama of the mishap, but rather the sense of comradery between audience and actors that it fostered. When we returned to the theatre, ready to restart the show, the audience applauded, and there was a heightened sense that all of us were in this experience together.
All of us are in this together. The Laramie Project, a modern classic created by Moisés Kaufman and the Members of Tectonic Theater Project, uses text gathered from hundreds of interviews, the journals of the company members as they were conducting the interviews, and other found texts to tell the story of Matthew Shepard, a young man brutally beaten to death in Laramie, Wyoming for being gay. The myriad characters in the story share a broad range of perspectives, from the Baptist minister who never backs down from his belief that homosexuality is a sin to an anonymous email writer who angrily declares that every straight person in Laramie has Shepard’s blood on their hands.
But through it all, whether it’s because of the compassionate treatment of every character in the script, the ensemble nature of the show in which every actor plays multiple roles, the spark of humanity that the actors bring to each character, or some combination of the three, there is this sense that all of us—the real-life residents of Laramie, the original creators of the show, AstonRep’s cast, and the current audience—are in this story, in this world, together. The play has a sense of shared humanity, even in the telling of a horrific tragedy, that is as heartwarming as the facts of the crime are heart-wrenching.
I am often a cynical person. I have grown especially exhausted with the phrase “now more than ever.” It seems that everything, from theatre productions to donations to charitable causes to listening to NPR has been slapped with the label “more important now than ever,” to the point that I side-eye anything that claims to be so. Ever since Trump took office, it has been harder and harder for me to believe that art matters, that it can make any difference at all in the face of an unending political hellscape.
The Laramie Project broke through my hardened worldview and found a tenderness in me I had forgotten was there. I was genuinely moved by this production, by this story, by these performances. I wept openly, more than once, and while this is hardly unusual for me, a notorious crier, it’s been years since I had to spend a few minutes in a theatre at the end of a show, clutching a loved one and recovering from the wellspring of emotion bursting out of me—sadness, sure, grief for the loss of Matthew Shepard, but also hope. Hope that in the telling of stories like these, in the compassionate treatment of even those wildly different from ourselves, we can make a better world. That art can help make a better world.
I owe the cast and crew of The Laramie Project a great debt for awakening that hope inside me that I’d thought might be entirely dead. This play, this production, is stunning and gorgeous and shattering and healing. Do your heart a favor and let it experience this show. You’ll be glad you did.
Location: The Raven Theatre (West Stage), 6157 N. Clark St., Chicago
Dates: Sunday, June 10 – Sunday, July 8, 2018
Curtain Times: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; Sundays at 3:30 pm
Tickets: $25. Student/seniors $15. Tickets are on sale at the AstonRep website or by calling (773) 828-9129.
All photos by Emily Schwartz.