The 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard remains both an open wound and a black hole in Laramie, Wyoming. It’s a source of unimaginable pain for those involved, to the point that many push back against having to deal with it even while the magnitude of what happened continues to prove inescapable. The aftermath of the anti-gay hate-crime—the criminal process, media frenzy, soul searching and horror—were all recounted meticulously in The Laramie Project, a landmark theatrical work comprised of interviews with Laramie residents. Now here is The Laramie Cycle (at BAM through February 24), which pairs a new staging of Project with Ten Years Later, a visit back to the city and the key players to see what has changed since the killing. But where the “project” of the first title hinted towards progress, an earnest attempt to understand how such an event could occur by examining the culture of the town and its attitudes toward homosexuality, the “cycle” of the full work hints at a dead end: even 10 years later the attack looms large, and the push away from it is just as strong.
Perhaps the cycle’s key line is, “We’ve become a definition.” For many, Laramie is synonymous with the murder, known only as a hick town where ignorant rednecks commit hate crimes. Part one of the Cycle deals with accepting that; there are calls to “own” the crime. Even a small town will be incredibly diverse, but “We can’t say this wouldn’t happen here, because it did happen here.” The second part, making its New York debut, questions whether Laramie still fits that definition and whether it should.
As a work of theater, there’s little new to say about Project. Suffice to say, this is an outstanding production, enthralling and devastating, and authentic in a way that can’t easily be duplicated as many of the original cast members—who conducted the interviews that became the script—have returned, along with director Moisés Kaufman. The acting and lighting are superlative; the five-hour marathon seems to pass in scarcely half that time.