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Richmond Triangle Players’ “Laramie Project” reminds us of how trauma can become a rallying cry

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In the 20 years since the brutal killing of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Wyoming much has changed for sexual minorities in America.

The criminalization of same-sex sexual contact is now a thing of the past. The "don't ask, don't tell" policy of the American military has been repealed. Same-sex marriage is now legal, and a recent poll found that more than two-thirds of Americans approve of the practice.

While LGBTQ rights activists would argue that there's still plenty to be done — including the fact that you can still legally be fired from your job in much of the country for your sexual orientation — it's undeniable that concrete progress has been made.

Against this backdrop of advancement, Richmond Triangle Players has returned to one of the most tragic and well-known stories in LGBTQ history with its staging of "The Laramie Project." Crafted by Moisés Kaufman and members of his Tectonic Theater Project, the play was a pioneering work when it was first staged, both for its subject matter and its use of more than 200 interviews with Laramie's inhabitants as its source material.

On the evening of Oct. 6, 1998, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard accepted a ride home from a bar from fellow 20-somethings Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. The men drove Shepard to a remote area and robbed, pistol-whipped and tortured him before tying him to a fence and leaving him to die. Shepard was discovered 18 hours later by a cyclist. He died six days after the attack from the extensive trauma to his body. Shepard's death prompted significant media coverage, including the role his sexual orientation played in the attack.

Over the year and a half following Shepard's beating, Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project made six trips to Laramie to interview its residents about the murder. The theater company then used those interviews to construct "The Laramie Project," allowing Laramie's townspeople to speak for themselves through the show's actors.

Under the masterful direction of Lucian Restivo, Triangle's eight cast members have worked to bring more than 60 characters to life, each with their own mannerisms and idiosyncrasies. When, say, actor Stevie Rice jumps from portraying a Tectonic Theatre Project member to townsperson Doc O'Connor, we see a full transformation take place before us. In his portrayals of Laramie detective Rob DeBree and hospital chief executive Rulon Stacey, Cole Metz is moving, and provides a stage presence well beyond his years. The rest of the cast — Rachel Dilliplane, Annella Kaine, Amber Marie Martinez, Jacqueline O'Connor, Adam Turck and Scott Wichmann — all do admirable work as well.

Restivo's rustic but relatively bare scenic design works well for the proceedings, with an upstage set piece serving as a representation of both the fence that Shepard was tied to and the railroad line along which Laramie was settled. Michael Jarrett's lighting adds to the show's dramatic impact, and Sheila Russ' costumes and Ellie Wilder's props are impressive in how they assist creating the show's distinctive characters with so little.

While the script is overlong in parts and McKinney and Henderson don't feel as fleshed out as they might be, "The Laramie Project" maintains an incredible capacity to move an audience. And like Shepard's parents, Kaufman and company reach for understanding and forgiveness instead of condemnation of Shepard's attackers.

In its latest production, Triangle has reminded us of the haunting power of "The Laramie Project," and how trauma can become a rallying cry for hope. S

Richmond Triangle Players' "The Laramie Project" plays through Oct. 19 at the Robert B. Moss Theatre, 1300 Altamont Ave. For information, visit rtriangle.org or call 346-8113.

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