Laramie_555.jpg

Annella Kaine (center in just one of the many characters she inhabits (along with Cole Metz, Stevie Rice and Amber Marie Martinez) in Richmond Triangle Players’ production of “The Laramie Project”, running through October 19 at RTP’s Robert B. Moss Theatre, 1300 Altamont Ave, Richmond, VA. Tickets at www.rtriangle.org. Photo by John MacLellan.

At first he thought it was a scarecrow.

But the closer he got, the quicker cyclist Aaron Kreifels realized that the figure tied to the buck-and-rail fence on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyo. — beaten, bloodied and barely breathing — was the victim of an unspeakable crime.

It has now been exactly 20 years since Matthew Shepard, a young gay man and University of Wyoming student, was beaten and left to die by two assailants he had met at a local watering hole.

But the years that have passed make the event no less shocking to recall or less important for us to revisit as we do through Richmond Triangle Players’ arduous but important production of “The Laramie Project,” an impressionistic and fragmentary return to the events surrounding Shepard’s murder and the community marked forever by the tragedy.

First staged only two years after Shepard’s death, which came six days after the attack chiefly as the result of blunt-force trauma to the head, “The Laramie Project” pointedly observes the first and fundamental rule of all great art: to locate the truth, no matter how bitter, and then report it for all to see and hear.

Under the guidance of award-winning playwright and director Moisés Kaufman, members of New York City’s Tectonic Theater Project traveled six times to Laramie in the immediate aftermath of the crime to interview key Laramie figures and assorted residents and to piece together a portrait of the townspeople’s horrified — and often conflicting — reactions to the event.

Drawn from more than 200 of those interviews, as well as assorted media reports and the actors’ personal notes, “The Laramie Project” offers a dispassionate and procedural retelling of the days, weeks and months after Shepard’s murder that brings to mind the storytelling techniques of TV’s “Law and Order” and even Orson Welles’ 1941 cinematic masterpiece, “Citizen Kane.”

But as “The Laramie Project” deftly and sadly demonstrates, attempts to unravel the mystery and motives here never result in a satisfying conclusion.

Instead, a town filled with “good people and lots of space to live,” as one of the play’s character says, who give thanks for “sky a blue that you’ll never be able to paint,” in the words of another, is left to face the cruel capacity for evil that lives in humans everywhere.

Divided into three acts with two intermissions, “The Laramie Project,” even at nearly three hours, never loosens its grip on us. Its uniformly excellent eight-member cast, who by turns play both members of the Tectonic company and the surprisingly diverse residents of Laramie, slowly assembles statements, memories and emotions about the crime and about Shepard himself, who is rendered here only through the players’ heartfelt words.

Director Lucian Restivo, aided by Michael Jarett’s slow-boil lighting, does patient, careful work blocking his actors, who are all onstage for nearly every minute of the show shifting seamlessly from character to character and benefitting greatly from Sheila Russ’ pointed but understated costume design.

Crafted out of white-hot reportage immediately after Shepard’s murder, “The Laramie Project” could be gently faulted for a stagey, overeager vibe and often seems a tad too impressed with its own ingenuity as its pastiche-style storytelling rolls out countless characterizations, including distracting and superfluous backstories of the Tectonic actors themselves.

But even as “The Laramie Project” might strike us as breathless and overly self-aware drama with a capital “D,” the show delivers repeated punches to the gut whenever Laramie witnesses, doctors and police — and even the perpetrators themselves — give voice to the harsh details of the murder itself.

In these moments, we only shake our heads and wonder how a town of plain-spoken residents, changed forever by a violent act fueled by reckless, pointless hate, can ever carry a grief — and brooding sense of guilt — as wide and lonely as the Wyoming sky.

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