A review of “The Laramie Project” at Civic Theatre

Powerful and haunting

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The Laramie Project premieres at the Civic Theatre. Photo credits to Bill Basta.

Trigger warning: hate crime, mentions of violence

When you enter the theater, the first thing you hear is the wind whistling. It is the wind of Laramie, Wyoming, the last thing university student Matthew Sheppard heard as he lay dying, beaten and tied against a metal fence.

The play, “The Laramie Project” focuses on the town of Laramie and how they were affected by Sheppard’s death at the hands of a violent anti-gay hate crime. It is devised from interviews and statements from friends, family, witnesses and others. The play is currently playing at Civic Theatre in Allentown, running until this weekend.

“The Laramie Project” focuses on the town of Laramie and how they are affected by Sheppard’s death at the hands of a violent anti-gay hate crime. “

At the beginning of the play, there is a dark stage with only a single candle lit. The ensemble walks together, dressed in black, onto the stage. The candle is then snuffed out. Immediately, you are thrown headfirst into the stories of “Laramie.”

At first, I thought the play’s pacing was too fast. There were times when I couldn’t remember who said what, but I realized it didn’t matter. The tragedy, the love, and regrettably, the hatred that prompted this event is what did matter. 

The play is emotional from the start, but I was sobbing towards the end of Act 2. Faces of the actors are often only lit by the yellow light of a candle, or a cold blue spotlight. The set is a collection of chairs that is moved around throughout the piece. In one instance, there is a jagged row of them that you can’t help but be disturbed by.

If there is one thing I have to commend (and trust me, I have many), it would be the ensemble. Their ability to capture a range of so many different characters and so many different attitudes is astounding. They switched between different costumes, accents and body languages in the blink of an eye, and you couldn’t help but be impressed.

These days, we think of being queer as a celebration. And I’m proud to live in that time, especially as a queer person. But this play is a meaningful and stark reminder that not everyone is proud and wants to see our candles lit.

These days, we think of being queer as a celebration. And I’m proud to live in that time, especially as a queer person. But this play is a meaningful and stark reminder that not everyone is proud and wants to see our candles lit.”

The play was written almost 23 years ago, but all I could think about as I left the theater was how relevant this piece is now. Anti-LGBTQIA+ rhetoric is at the forefront of politics, and hate crimes still happen, despite the Matthew Sheppard anti-hate crime legislation taking effect in 2009. 

But “The Laramie Project” also emphasizes the importance of community and love; interviews of grief, coming together as a community and more are some of the things I will remember the most. Matthew Sheppard will not be forgotten, and his tragedy is more than just personal, it is political.

The show follows several different themes: queerness, religion, grief, the justice system and so much more. There are moments of love, where the characters comfort and hold each other. There are moments when you smile and laugh. And there are other moments where you see nothing but pitch black, the actors uttering lines that strip you to your core as a human being.

Honestly, I’m still thinking of this production. It’s been a few days, but I am reminded of the whistling Laramie wind, the tears of Act Two, and of course, the yellow light of the candle. It is revealing that there is still some light, even in these dark days.

You can donate to the Matthew Sheppard Foundation here.

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