The Laramie Project at the University of Maryland Baltimore County

A profound and inspiring production can be found in the University of Maryland Baltimore County Theatre Department’s production of The Laramie Project by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project, the play is a composite retelling of true events from the unfortunate hate crime that befell Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, in the fall of 1998. Directed by Nyalls Hartman, twelve students of the university undertake the complex task of bringing dozens of characters to life in this performance.

Left to right: Anderson Wells, Jessica Poole, and Josh Holober-Ward Photo by Rich Riggins.

With a set designed by Elena Zlotescu the stage is sparsely decorated, blending a simple atmosphere with digital projections across a large screen. Zlotescu covers the stage floor in woodchips with two large poles decorated like fallen trees of to the far back corner of the stage, creating an outdoor feel to the scene. A large wooden plank runs the length of the stage on an elevated angle meant to symbolize the fence. The play becomes more intense when pictures of Laramie are projected onto the screen as they tell their tale. Daniel Covey, responsible for projections, intermingles live footage from the arraignment and other news broadcasts regarding the event with footage streaming from cameras on stage as the actors pose as news reporters. The overall combination of digital media enhancing the set, particularly when they flash the picture of the fence, is humbling.

It is clear that director Nyalls Hartman has spent many hours working with his acting team. The cast rises to the occasion and easily meets the challenge that this play demands – requiring multiple roles from every person involved. There are several moments when Hartman has scattered his actors randomly about the stage and they begin speaking – one after the next after the next, pinging off each other like an active game of pinball where their words fly between them like the ball. Hartman also employs a faded speech technique in certain scenes, allowing multiple people to continue talking as background noise while one comes into focus. This creates a sense of realism, and brings a rigid feeling of liveliness to the show. And perhaps one of the most stunning visual images to bloom from this performance is the first introduction of the fence. The entire cast stands and kneels facing the screen as the lights dim and the picture of the fence is projected. A harsh whipping wind can be heard but otherwise there is silence. The moment brings chills up your spine.

Dialect coach Rachel Hirshorn provides great resources for the actors, coaching them in various accents and allowing them to sound more convincing as they portray the townsfolk of Laramie. Hirshorn’s work does not go unnoticed; her subtle attention to details prevents contrived sounding accents. The ‘wh’ sound in Wyoming is clear in many of the characters and their accents are just present enough to know they come from a place not local without having an exaggerated edge to them.

There is rare talent exhibited in this cast of students as they slide in and out of multiple characters, creating dozens of different voices, attitudes, and personas to portray those interviewed by Tectonic Theater Project. With a strong ensemble (Christopher Dews, Jessie Pool, Samrawit Belai, Shannon Ziegler, Meghan Hudecheck, Sam van Sant, Dan Friedman, and Brad Widener) the audience sees a myriad of accounts, from the frightened boy who discovered Matthew at the fence (Shannon Ziegler) to the heinous and villains Fred Phelps (Christopher Dews) leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, who arrived at Shepard’s funeral to protest. Each of these ensemble members tackles at least three different characters, giving them a unique life and voice as they do.

We find a stunning performance given from actor Anderson Wells, who portrays the Laramie Sheriff, the Catholic priest who held the Shepard vigil, and the hospital doctor, among others, finding expressive anguish and sorrow written on his face as he speaks. Wells defines each of his characters through vocal shifts, the intonation and octaves range from melancholy and baritone to slightly higher tenor with remorse and humbled feelings. We find similar versatility in actor Josh Holober-Ward, shown first as a young drama student, and then later as both Henderson and McKinney. Holober-Ward creates innocence in his character portrayal of Jedediah Shultz, a young student who knew Shepard and wishes to go to school for acting. We see gentle mannerisms as he expresses his confusion over the hatred from his parents and bright enthusiasm for his willingness to act.

And then Holober-Ward spins completely around when portraying Henderson and McKinney. As Henderson he delivers a mournful letter of regret to the audience, which is sorrowful but missing soul, as the character is a heartless deviant. And the audience loathes his creation of McKinney, as he sits there in questioning showing no remorse, with a bitter tongue and slack posture. A truly stunning change of characters presented in this young actor; leaving the audience yearning to see more.

But the piece pièce de résistance comes from a gifted actor, Katie Hileman. Taking on over five roles Hileman provides the audience with a compelling scene between Theater Project company member Amanda Gronich and the Baptist minister of Laramie, playing both roles as the holds a phone conversation between the two. Hileman has no trouble distinguishing between the two voices, flipping quickly between the riled-up, bible-driven minister and the curious but quiet company member. We see further display of Hileman’s talents in her portrayal of Marge Murray, a townsperson who is in her 70’s with emphysema. Hileman takes on a gruff quality to her voice here, making her sound older and plays up the coughing to just the right level. It is not overdone and it is still convincing; she even shifts her physicality to lean on her cane giving the audience the idea that this twenty-something actor is really a seventy-something chain smoking small town woman.

Keep your eyes open for a harrowing scene stealer found in David Brasington. While his role as Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father, is brief, it is profound and stuns the audience to silence and tears. Brasington delivers a statement to the court as Matthew’s father, determining whether or not they will seek the death penalty for McKinney. His hands tremble and his eyes mist up as he speaks but he delivers each word with accurate precision and tormented emotion, a brilliant if tragic moment to watch.

Be sure not to miss this incredible production of The Laramie Project, provided by the UMBC Theatre Department.

The Laramie Project runs through December 11, 2011, at The University of Maryland Baltimore County, Theatre Building – 1000 Hilltop Circle, in Baltimore MD. For tickets, please call the box office at (410) 455- 2917.