“The Laramie Project,” directed by Theater Arts Professor David Wheeler, was an in-depth look at a hate crime that shook up a small Wyoming town in October of 1998, yet the effects of this brutal crime were felt all over the world. The play is based upon interviews from Laramie townspeople that were conducted within a year after the murder of 21-year old Mathew Shepard, a gay man who was kidnapped, robbed, beaten, and left to die, tied to a fence. The Yuba College theater students achieved an honest and extremely well-done performance. Impressive is the first word that comes to mind after watching the small cast of ten portray about seventy characters. Perhaps one of the brightest stars in the cast was Joseph Nowak, who adopted the persona of eight characters. Jaws dropped when Nowak performed the role of an ex-con who described a run-in he had had with fellow inmate Aaron McKinney, one of the perpetrators, in a prison cafeteria. “I’d be afraid to go to prison if I were those two boys,” he told the audience. Also offering a compelling performance was Marco Ruiz as Jedadiah Schultz, a university student who told the audience about how his parents had refused to watch him portray a homosexual character in an important audition. Ruiz’s performance was demanding and passionate, one that no one could turn away from. Perhaps the most emotional scene was when Aaron McKinney, played by David Haggard, was questioned about the murder. Haggard’s performance was so real that one could read the anger and disgust on many faces in the audience. Other standout performances included Carmen Smith as Reggie Fluty, a police officer who was the first to respond to the 911 call when Shepard was discovered, and Jim Prager as Mathew’s father, Dennis Shepard, who made an emotional statement to the killers. Many audience members enjoyed how the interviews were linked. The transitions from interview to interview never left the audience lost or bored. The production also boasted simple, yet defining costumes for each character, a clever use of minimal props, and up-close-and-personal seating. Because the audience had the option of actually sitting around the performance, including on stage, the audience felt truly involved in what was going on onstage. After the performance, Professor Wheeler hosted a forum, where audience members could pose questions and comments to the cast. The actors were quick to explain their thoughts about the murder, Rae Auguilera commented, “After learning about the murder, I got kinda angry at Mathew Shepard for actually getting into a car with two strangers, especially these guys. It’s like, ‘What where you thinking?'” Marco Ruiz described taking on such an intense role, “I had to challenge myself to find out where I stood, and I really had to search myself personally.”
In the end, Wheeler, and his talented cast, brought a well-balanced portrait of a small town murder to life. The cast of ten showed real range and versatility. Although “The Laramie Project” was a story of great sadness, it was honest, real, and a pleasure to watch.