MLT Ronald Rezac plays the emergency room doctor who treats Matthew Shepard after his beating becomes a national story.

My little town

Documentary play aims to foster tolerance for gays

By Jenny Lower 05/10/2012

On Oct. 6, 1998, events unfolded in a small Wyoming town that should stir recent memories for Ventura county residents. Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was robbed, beaten and tied to a fence on the outskirts of Laramie in freezing temperatures. He died six days later. The town was left reeling, suddenly forced to explain itself on the national stage.


An openly gay young man, brutally murdered by his peers in a hate crime, stuns the local community. Sound familiar?


A month after Shepard’s killing, actors from the New York City-based Tectonic Theater Project, led by Moses Kaufman, arrived in Laramie. Over the next year, they conducted interviews with the townspeople, including Shepard’s friends, neighbors and acquaintances. Their efforts were documented in The Laramie Project, a three-act stage play in which eight actors play more than 60 roles. The show has become a staple on high school and college campuses around the country, and has been performed 2,000 times worldwide.


Now the Camarillo Skyway Playhouse (formerly the Camarillo Community Theater) continues its first season under a new name by bringing the play to Ventura County. Directed by Jolyn Johnson, the production is not perfect, but the fact remains: The play’s message of tolerance should be shared everywhere, but it holds special significance here.


The director’s note addresses the fatal shooting of gay middle-schooler Larry King by an Oxnard classmate in February 2008, 10 years after Shepard’s death. (Anti-hate crime legislation bearing Shepard’s name was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009.) Brandon McInerney, who was 14 when he shot King, received a 21-year sentence through a plea deal last November. Casa Pacifica, the home for troubled teens where King lived after being removed from his family, lies a few miles down the road from the Playhouse.


Despite strong subject matter, the production suffers at times from cluttered staging and rough transitions. Instead of being allowed to linger for a breath after a goosebump-raising exchange, we tend to barrel forward into the next scene, the actors throwing lines over their shoulders. Johnson relies on multimedia elements that tend to distract rather than enhance what unfolds onstage. But these errors do not overshadow the play’s powerful performances. The actors display astonishing range, convincingly playing against age, race and gender on a traditionally spare set with minimal aid from costumes and props.


Now entering its closing weekend, The Laramie Project represents a brave effort for this reinvigorated theater. If the current offerings and recently announced 2013 projects are any indication — the Aaron Sorkin play The Farnsworth Invention and the Sondheim musical Assassins debut this summer and fall, along with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Cabaret in 2013 — audiences can expect more daring, challenging fare in the coming months. Watch this group.


Plenty of people may decline to see this show, either from distaste, heavy subject matter or sheer running time. Don’t let those reasons dissuade you. The Laramie Project is not graphic, sexual or violent, and it’s very funny. No matter your attitude toward homosexuality, you are sure to hear similar thoughts voiced onstage by regular folk trying to sort out what happened and their place in it.


Go. It’s not too late. 

The Laramie Project, closing May 13. Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Camarillo Skyway Playhouse, 330 Skyway Drive, Camarillo. For tickets: 388-5716 or www.skywayplayhouse.org.

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