- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 20, 2002

If literary awards were given out for good intentions, "The Laramie Project" by Moises Kaufman would be a shoo-in. This docudrama, based on more than 200 interviews with the people of Laramie, Wyo., (the town where Matthew Shepard, a young gay man, was brutally tortured and murdered in 1998), fairly glows with earnestness and altruism. Whether or not that makes good theater depends on how you feel about message plays.
Somehow, you get the impression that "The Laramie Project" would better serve its target anti-hate crime legislation (Maryland does not have a hate-crime law) with a television documentary, something that would have a celebrity voice-over and a movie star coming on at the end to tell the viewers how they can help.
That is not to detract from the powerful moments in the Olney Theatre Center's production, directed with grace and simplicity by Jim Petosa. The acting company Anne Bowles, Helen Hedman, Jesse Hooker, Christopher Lane, Susan Lynskey, Paul Morella, Alan Wade, Harry A. Winter and MaryBeth Wise does an excellent job portraying the various Laramie residents working through the days after the murder, its aftermath, and the trials of the two young local men accused of the crime.
"The Laramie Project" came out of Mr. Kaufman and his New York-based Tectonic Theatre Project traveling to Laramie and conducting interviews. The play details the efforts of the playwright and his writers to talk things out with Laramie citizens, as well as recording their own feelings and impressions.
The Olney cast has to portray the members of the Tectonic Theatre Project portraying the various people they encounter in Wyoming. Confusing? You bet. And it also dilutes the message to have the cast members constantly switching between painting a portrait of a Western town devastated by a hate crime and the media aftermath, and pulling back to express the emotions of the makers of the docudrama. As any good documentarist knows, keep yourself out of sight and let the people involved tell the story themselves.
And it seems a bit indulgent to have all these theater types from the East Coast yakking it up about their feelings, their first encounters with chicken-fried steak, and their incredulity at realizing that gays and lesbians have it much harder in Wyoming than they do in New York City. Well, duh.
The show's length, over two and a half hours, also detracts from its potential. Even though the play's subject matter is a vicious hate crime, the show descends into repetition and tedium.
Still, there are some standout performances. Miss Bowles beautifully portrays Matthew Shepard's friend Romain as a typically, charmingly adrift college student who finds her true vocation political activism as a result of the murder. Miss Lynskey has her scene-stealing moments as a salty former bartender and fiercely protective mother (as well as a humorously humorless Islamic feminist), and Mr. Lane deftly switches between a searchingly earnest hospital administrator and a local gay man who notes that, for all the hullaballoo, very little has changed in Wyoming as a result of the hate crime and the ensuing media circus.
To come down hard on a play about Matthew Shepard's murder is like slapping a puppy. Yet, you have to wonder, why a play? The cause may be better served in another medium.

WHAT: "The Laramie Project" by Moises Kaufman
WHEN: Tuesdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. through Aug. 11
WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, Md.
TICKETS: $15-$35, (301) 924-3400
CAPSULE: A well-intentioned, sometimes powerful docudrama.

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