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THEATER REVIEW: Chance Theater’s “The Laramie Project” plays

People do not like to change long-held opinions, no matter how much new information or how many facts can be marshaled against them. I don’t have the stats, but I’d hazard a guess that the likelihood of changing someone’s opinion is inversely related to the length of time it’s been held.

The horrific 1998 murder of the openly gay Matthew Shepard outside Laramie, Wyo. is a prime example of this. Media reports of the gruesome murder (he was tied to a fence, viciously beaten and left to die on a cold October night) called it an anti-gay hate crime. At trial, other possible motives were mentioned such as robbery and a drug deal gone bad. The perpetrators, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, are serving two consecutive life sentences for the crime.

The murder inspired playwright Moisés Kaufman to take a group of actors from his Tectonic Theater Project to Laramie to interview residents about the event and its effect on the town. That play, “The Laramie Project,” has become one of the most-produced plays in the U.S. (especially in schools and colleges) but is still controversial. An attempt to stop a 2009 high school production in Las Vegas was struck down by a judge.

The crime has also inspired three narrative films and a documentary in addition to an HBO presentation of Kaufman’s first play.

Kaufman took his actors back to Laramie in 2008 to interview residents about any lasting effects the crime had on the town. The result was a second play, “The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later.”

Chance Theater in Anaheim presents riveting productions of both “Laramie Project” plays in repertory through May 19, helmed by the theater’s Artistic Director Oanh Nguyen.

What could be a dramatically dead piece consisting of consecutive talking heads – eight actors play more than 60 characters, but most speak in monologue form – is compelling theater in Kaufman and Nguyen’s hands.

The staging is stark: mostly eight chairs, rather intricately choreographed into different configurations. Video projections are mostly helpful, though overuse of the apparently symbolic TV snow and the theatrical convention of pulling the script in and out of a series of drawers grates after a while.

But the acting is top-notch. It’s too difficult to keep track of who’s playing whom, but the universally fine acting company consists of Jocelyn A. Brown, Robert Foran, David McCormick, James McHale, Erika C. Miller, Karen O’Hanlon, Brandon Sean Pearson and Karen Webster.

The first play, with interviews conducted a month after the murder, portrays Laramie as a small town (just under 27,000) with a “live and let live” philosophy. Residents are shocked and saddened by the crime, but reject any suggestion that this is what Laramie is like. The first play ends with this comment from a Muslim resident: “We need to own this crime. We ARE like this.”

A decade later, Kaufman and his crew found that things are different: There’s at least one openly gay state legislator, an annual AIDS walk, and there are Matthew Shepard Social Justice seminars at the university. The university has even approved benefits for same-sex partners “when fiscally feasible” (not yet).

But not much has really changed. Laramie residents have not only refused to own the hate crime (blaming the media for suggesting it), but have scrambled to ascribe other motives for the murder. A 2004 “20/20” episode helped them out; many residents have adopted their suggestion that it was a drug deal gone bad or just about robbery.

Interviews with McKinney and Henderson (played by Brandon Sean Pearson and James McHale, respectively) are illuminating and a highlight of the second play, though they don’t explain why adequately either.

Matthew’s mother Judy Shepard became a vocal spokesperson for hate crime legislation (which finally resulted in the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (Matthew Shepard Act for short).

But as for Laramie, one resident summed up what seems the majority opinion: “We are trying to put it behind us.”

And, as a university representative put it, most students “don’t know, care or think Matthew’s story relevant.”

What was that quote about those who refuse to learn from the past?

The details

“The Laramie Project” and “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later” play in repertory through May 19 at Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.

Thursdays (Part 1) and Fridays (Part 2) at 8. Saturdays at 3 (Part 1) and 8 (Part 2). Sundays at 2 (Part 1) and 7 (Part 2).

Tickets: (714) 777-3033 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.