I attended the Liberty Bell Drama Company’s production of “The Laramie Project” on opening night last Wednesday. Performed at the TwispWorks outdoor pavilion, the play tells the true story of the residents of Laramie, Wyoming, in the aftermath of the brutal 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, which endures as one of our nation’s most heinous anti-gay hate crimes.
A cold rainstorm preceded the show and with the sky an unsettled shade of gray, we headed to TwispWorks laden with hats and down parkas and blankets. Parking our lawn chairs on the grass, we settled in, adding warm layers as the night progressed, coveting the sleeping bag that one cozy soul in the front row had had the foresight to bring. I was warm enough, but barely, and I certainly lacked the panache of the kid who went home at intermission and returned wearing a one-piece pajama-style fleece dinosaur suit. The cold was tolerable, but only because the play was compelling.
And then about halfway through the performance something unexpected happened. The outdoor setting transformed from a COVID-compliant necessity to an element that contributed to and even enhanced the performance. The Laramie landscape features large in the narrative, and experiencing the play with the Methow Valley landscape as a full-surround backdrop elevated that sense of place.
It seemed that the cold heightened our empathy for Matthew Shepard and the 18 hours he spent tied to a fence in the Wyoming high desert rangeland. We watched the sky grow dusky and then dark, the passing of time noted in the earth’s eternal rhythms.
The illuminated cross on the hill above the outdoor stage was echoed on the set’s pulpit, its message filtered through the eyes of the various clergy represented in the story, whose perspectives implied that doctrine is a bright white light that enlightens some and blinds others.
When junior Holly Hooper delivered the courtroom speech of Matthew Shepard’s father (a monologue I challenge you to listen to without tearing up) she spoke Dennis Shepard’s words from the real courtroom transcript, referencing “the night sky,” “the stars and moon,” “the wind,” and “the scent of pine trees.” We looked up to see the night sky and clouds parting to reveal emerging stars and moon, a cold breeze blowing the scent of Ponderosas across the TwispWorks campus.
The blustery spring evening made watching outdoor theater physically challenging, which later seemed perfectly appropriate, given the play’s subject matter. The audience was chilly, the actors were most likely borderline hypothermic. Our physical discomfort segued into the emotional discomfort the play evokes. Matthew Shepard’s murder was undeniably cold-blooded. Just as chilling is the fact that it happened in a community where people said “that’s not us, that’s not who we are.”