Media Analysis: The Laramie Project Moises Kaufman’s The Laramie Project, is most commonly referred to as a docudrama, a play that is largely based on real facts. The play is all nonfiction facts about the death of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student whose brutal murder shocked the country in 1998.
Based on more than 200 interviews with the town’s citizens during the year and a half following Shepard’s murder, members of Moises Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater Project, the company best known for the Broadway smash, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, traveled to Laramie, Wyoming (home to both the victim and his killers), and conducted “The Laramie Project,” directed by Kaufman with input of the performers, who also served as dramatists/writers. The Laramie Project is a theatrical collage of excerpts from these interviews and from the journals of the actor-writers themselves.
Despite the fact that the events of the play are based on actual events with their own drama, Kaufman’s talents as a playwright are used to enhance the emotional impact of these events and create an atmosphere that stirs the audience more than just reading of the events does. The question is, how does he do this? The most fascinating aspects of the play are the various reactions and emotions of the people that were interviewed. From the sadness and guilt of some of the townspeople, to the joyful celebration of the so-called “Reverend” Fred Phelps, played by James Murtaugh.
The people who should have felt guilt over Matthew’s death did not, while those who did not bear much or any responsibility sometimes felt a sense of guilt. In this way, the play presents an example of dramatic irony in the reactions of the various groups of people involved. Father Roger Schmit, played by Tom Bower, a Catholic priest, expressed how “jolted” he was when he bravely performed a vigil for Matthew Shepherd. He also expressed his anger that various religious ministers decided not to “get involved (p. 5). ” The priest was presented as a more sympathetic figure, being one of the most tolerant of the religious figures in the play. He did not even bother to consult the bishop for permission to do the sermon. The Baptist minister’s wife’s thoughts were also interesting. She claimed that her husband’s thoughts about the murder were that “he has very biblical views about homosexuality…he doesn’t condone that kind of violence…but he doesn’t condone that kind of lifestyle… (p. 27). ” She doesn’t even realize the ontradiction in her statement about her husband’s opinion, considering the Bible states the death penalty for male homosexuality. She goes on to say that “we are all hoping this just goes away. ” It is almost as though she wants to forget what happened, seeing it as an annoyance, and nothing to get all bent out of shape over. Matt Galloway, played by Joshua Jackson, a bartender that worked at the place where Shepherd is picked up by his two killers, expresses a sense of remorse, despite the fact that he really did not have anything to be sorry for.
He said that “I shoulda noticed. I shoulda not had my head down when I was washing dishes for those twenty seconds. Things I coulda done. (p. 52). ” This feeling is probably natural and certainly understandable, but this really shows the dramatic irony. The fact that the bartender feels guilty when he really had nothing to be guilty about and yet the people who bear responsibility for fostering the hatred and intolerance that lead to Matthew’s murder really do not feel much guilt at all.
For example, the Baptist minister, He is reluctant to talk about the entire fiasco, but when he does, it is clear how he really feels. While the minister supports the death penalty for Matthew’s killers, his statement about Matthew speak for themselves about his attitude quite clearly. “I know that his lifestyle was legal…I hope that Matthew Shepherd as he was tied to that fence…had time…to reflect on his lifestyle (p. 69). ” Like many, he categorized Matthew Shepherd as a “lifestyle,” as if every Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, or Transgendered person leads the same lifestyle.
He showed no sorrow or regret for Matthew’s murder, and never considered whether or not his sermons may have helped promote the kind of violence that Matthew was a victim of. Unfortunately, this Baptist minister’s actions are minor in comparison to Fred Phelps, who said among other things that “…two times for every verse [the Bible] talks about God’s love it talks about God’s hate (p. 78)…we love that attribute of God…because God’s hatred is pure (p. 79). This was, undoubtedly, the most extreme reaction in the play to Matthew’s murder, and it is an attitude like this that contributes to the same homophobia that killed Matthew Shepard. Toward the end of the play, one of the murderers, Russell Henderson played by Garret Neergaard, said that he was sorry for killing Matthew Shepherd. “I know what I did was very wrong, and I regret greatly what I did…I’m ready to pay my debt for what I did. (p. 83). ” This could potentially shatter the dramatic irony, however, I ‘m not so sure that it did.
This shows an example of a guilty person, the guiltiest out of everyone in fact, who did express guilt. However, the judge in this case did not buy it, and neither do I. “You drove the vehicle that took Matthew Shepherd to his death…bound him to that fence…left him out there for eighteen hours…and you did nothing…this Court does not believe that you really feel any true remorse for your part in this matter (p. 83). ” The judge finishes wondering if Russell Henderson really understands what he did. I can’t help but to wonder the same thing.
The range of reactions from the various characters, as written by Kaufman, ran from guilt and sorrow to stubborn denial and even the perverse elation of Fred Phelps. Kaufman highlights the irony by doing a fantastic job showing which characters felt which emotions. The fact that, in general, the characters who were not really at any blame in any way felt guilt, whereas those who were really responsible did not, is an unfortunate irony, but not nearly as unfortunate as the events that lead to the story behind this play.
That said, the heart-wrenching nature of this material does eventually come through, gracefully making points about tolerance, the communities we live in and their ability to change. Brian A. Kates’ excellent editing maintains a strong sense of narrative momentum through the script’s potentially tricky structure. From Laura Linney’s monologue as a politely homophobic housewife to Terry Kinney as Dennis Shepard, the grieving father whose agonizing courtroom speech provides emotional climax both Kaufman’s play and film deserve a “thumbs up” and a job well done with this tragic story.