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The Talk in Laramie.


Fifty years ago Thornton Wilder admitted that he disliked the theater. Too theatrical, he said; too stale to express how people actually think and feel. Since Wilder's time there have been plenty of experiments in eliminating the kind of staginess he thought interfered with reality and undermined belief.

The Tectonic Theater Project's production The Laramie Project, currently playing at the Union Square, is, admirably, one of these. From its initial set--a stark space with five crude oak tables resembling a rural polling place on voting day--to the plainsong delivery of its players, the air of the piece is immediate and democratic. The audience is let in on everything--from the company's decision to make six trips to Wyoming to conduct hundreds of interviews to their individual fears about the project. It's almost as if dissolving the old theatrical hierarchies is the first step in bringing home to us the 1998 beating and death of young, gay Matthew Shepard on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming, by two local heterosexuals about his age.

The Tectonic Theater members know something about the power of fact. Their Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, built entirely from historical documents, was the surprise Off Broadway hit of 1998, delivering a more vivid picture of Wilde and his times than any of the numerous stage or film versions you are likely to see. The actors inhabited the speech and gestures of Victorian Englishmen just as they do the citizens of Laramie. But in The Laramie Project they go further, reminding us frequently of who they are in the company as opposed to whose words they are speaking--whether those of the emergency-room doctor who treated Shepard, for instance, or the bicyclist who found him tied to a fence, or his friends and those of the killers, or university people, law enforcement officials, religious leaders and sundry others. Candor rules, facts liberate and we should have no illusions, theatrical or otherwise.

This is, of course, the stage landscape that Anna Deavere Smith staked out in Fires in the Mirror, her 1991 piece about the Crown Heights riots, and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, the series of interviews she conducted around the Rodney King incident and its aftermath. Though both start from a morally neutral point of view, the Tectonic's ensemble effort in Laramie and Smith's solo re-enactments of her interviews play out quite differently.

Near the beginning of Laramie a professor at the University of Wyoming describes the aftermath of Shepard's beating, ending with the moment "the media arrived and there was no opportunity to reflect on anything anymore." Reflection is one thing, but spontaneous speech is quite another, and despite some intense moments in The Laramie Project, you do get the sense that many of these citizens were talked out well before they were interviewed by the Tectonic players. Some, like the bartender who served both Shepard and his killers on the fateful night, deliver a media-worn routine. Others respond with sentiments and wisdom received from the media.

Strangest of all, their language is almost polished. Unlike most of us, they usually finish their thoughts; their sense of themselves and their self-presentation is firm; and they speak without what Smith calls the "sludge" of language--the linguistic noodling that inadvertently reveals character in hesitations, redundancies, pauses, non sequiturs, evasions and nonsense. Perhaps the individual interviews didn't go on long enough to break through the sincere but unwittingly well-rehearsed to a moment of revelation, but I doubt it. If Wilder was right about the stage interfering with reality, what would he say about the frame the media has put around our speech and our lives? The television screens suspended on the back wall in the second act of The Laramie Project seem to acknowledge this problem but maybe not the toll it has taken on what we can and cannot learn here.

The communities of Crown Heights and Los Angeles were also talked to death in the aftermath of their cataclysms, and yet Smith's theater pieces dug out new material from the sludge of speech, wince-making riffs and inspiring ones as well, fresh revelations even from the stalest language. How she does this I can't say. The eminent linguist William Labov once observed that the talk of almost all middle-class people is virtually interchangeable, and yet Smith finds distinctiveness and a hidden charge of meaning within the most mundane delivery, whereas the citizens in The Laramie Project mostly bear out Labov's observation. At the end of Fires and Twilight you can say, I have been shown something I didn't know, and yet it is something I recognize as true. The word "catharsis" comes to mind.

Laramie is a town with a terrible crime, but no terrible truths come to light here. This beautifully staged canvassing of its citizens is well paced and absorbing but not ultimately affecting. The focus of the piece, the gay hate crime, as the media insisted on describing it, is a problematic center maybe because it rests on the processed wisdom of too many people at the mercy of too many articles, newscasts and interviews. Laramie does not seem any more homophobic than many other places--perhaps that's why it's hard for The Laramie Project to go deep enough to reveal something we didn't know we knew. Shepard was a victim because he was gay, but the beating was, as JoAnn Wypijewski wrote in Harper's, more an opportunistic crime by two louts at the end of a methamphetamine binge than an act of homophobic rage.

The members of the Tectonic Theater Project radiate honesty; they found what they found. But I wandered from the performance occasionally to consider, unfairly perhaps, what they didn't find, and afterward I wondered whether the secret shame of Laramie might be that in this upright community there's an element of routine and absent-minded moral indifference. After all, a substantial number of people, like the killers, seem to have been written off by the rest of Laramie as social discards, or "lazy little crankheads," as one local described them to Vanity Fair. Drugs and the dead-end lives of the killers are two motifs, little examined in the press, that also do not figure into The Laramie Project--untold stories lurking beneath one too often told.

In Short: Jo, in Claudia Shear's Dirty Blonde (Helen Hayes Theatre), has a thing about Mae West, and I have a thing about Claudia Shear. The fact is, I know she's way more interesting than Mae West, who was only one of those small, controlling blondes fixated on sex but not very sexy, like Madonna or Andy Warhol. Claudia is not small and her wonderful solo show, Blown Sideways Through Life, an extended description of a big girl's sixty-four-job search for decent work, reminded me of the biography of Gutzon Borglum, who carved Mount Rushmore. If he hadn't found such an extravagant outlet for his pathology and his ambitions, only the local lockup would have heard of him. I imagine something of the sort might have awaited Shear without her improvisations on the stage. Anyway, Dirty Blonde, a three-person play set in the present, with re-enactments from West's life, is a great vehicle, and Shear and her excellent co-stars, Bob Stillman and Kevin Chamberlin, drive it with maximum risk. From its strike-me-pink lipstick set to the finale with the greatest kiss on Broadway, Dirty Blonde goes deep into the heart of the stigmatized and comes out with a perfect piece of Erving Goffmanesque wisdom: We like these stories of the marginal; we know them well. And how is that? We are all stigmatized.

From what I am told, Our Lady of Sligo is not Sebastian Barry's very best play; The Steward of Christendom apparently holds that honor. You should go anyway to the Irish Repertory Theater to see the superb Sinead Cusack in the title role. "Utterly without ego," my theater mate remarked of Cusack's performance. Remarkable and true.

Elizabeth Pochoda, executive editor of House & Garden, is a former Nation literary editor.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Theater Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 19, 2000
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