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.
Ten Years Later is comparatively weaker, lacking as it must the first part’s immediacy. People have moved on, and while it’s sad that Shepard’s story is being forgotten by younger generations, it’s also inevitable. Both sections feature actors switching between dozens of characters, but where they spoke directly to the audience in part one, underlining the sense of isolation and silence, they speak more to each other now, a subtle show of burgeoning openness. Ten Years Later loses some focus by broadening its point of view, and sometimes its anger seems misplaced. Much is made of a revisionist history where Shepard was killed in a drug deal gone bad rather than a hate crime, but as this belief took hold after a horribly irresponsible 20/20 news segment—in which the producer ignored the public record in favor of a sensationalized “scoop”—how fair is it to say this narrative reflects a desire to shrug off the definition of a hate-filled culture rather than a (not unreasonable) trust in a reputable news source?
It’s easy to imagine a third iteration of Laramie that meshes material from both works and drops some of the less vital scenes. A sequence involving a marriage amendment vote is interesting, but it lacks context, and while it speaks to the political momentum building behind gay rights, it seems too far away from the key events to make much impact. Other new scenes are absolutely essential, including extended scenes with both of Shepard’s killers, each heartbreaking in their own way. Calling Laramie a cycle indicates that the project began by the Tectonic Theater Project back in 2000 can never be completed. The more one learns about what happens, the less they understand.