The Laramie Project begins with a section titled “Moment.” It is in this brief segment (which is repeated throughout the play) that the members of Tectonic Theater Project read entries from the journals they have kept during their interviews with the people of Laramie. This repeated section also affords special characters a chance to deliver longer monologues than those given in the rest of the play, which is set up as interviews. After an opening comment by the narrator, one of the town’s long-time residents provides a bit of personal history about living in Laramie. Through this narration, the audience also gains some insights into the history of the town. Other people join in: some are newcomers; others have lived in Laramie for a long time. All of them provide background information on what it is like, in general, to be involved in the culture of the town. This sets up the atmosphere of the play. It gives the audience an idea of what life was like before the murder of Matt Shepard.
The atmosphere of the plays changes when Jedadiah Schultz begins to talk. This is the first time that there is an allusion to the fact that something seriously wrong has happened to Laramie—that the town has changed. Jedadiah begins with the statement: “It’s hard to talk about Laramie now.” Then he continues: “If you would have asked me before, I would have told you Laramie is a beautiful town.” Things have obviously changed.
Then comes another “Moment.” In this one, Rebecca Hilliker, a college professor, offers her opinions of her students. They are different from ones she has taught in other towns, in other states. They speak their mind. They have strong opinions, which Hilliker likes because it creates a “dynamic in education.” The “Moment” then changes focus, returning to Jedadiah, who relates the story of how he won a scholarship to the university by performing a scene from Angels in America, a play with homosexual characters. He concludes by saying that his parents were opposed to his doing this and did not show up for his performance. His statements begin to reveal the chasm in the community between those who are open-minded about homosexuality and those who are not.
The play returns to the interview format, with several more community members giving their views of the town. They provide more history, such as the presence and influence of the railroads. Marge Murray discusses the distinction she feels between those who are educated and those who are not. But overall, Marge believes that the general sentiment of the townspeople is “live and let live.” However, when Marge is told that what she is saying will eventually end up in a play, she decides that she had better not tell the interviewer everything that she knows.
In the next “Moment,” Andy Paris, a member of Tectonic Theater Project, reveals that they have finally come across someone who really knew Matthew Shepard. This person is Doc O’Connor, a limousine driver who befriended Shepard. Doc provides a description of Shepard, depicting him as a slightly built young man who was not afraid to speak his mind. The next few people interviewed continue the description of Shepard. They talk about how friendly he was despite his initial shyness.
Doc reappears and provides more background information about the people of Laramie, stating that Shepard was by far not the only gay person in town. Doc believes that the gay townspeople would not make this information public, but that does not mean that they do not exist. Doc also feels...
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that the general belief underlying the community is that of “live and let live.”
The next interviews reflect a variety of religious opinions. A Baptist minister appears; his message from the pulpit is that the Bible does not condone homosexuality. A representative of the Mormon Church reinforces this statement. A member of the Unitarian Church speaks next; this person is open-minded about homosexuality. Then a young Muslim woman is interviewed. She talks about how difficult it was to wear a scarf, a symbol of her religion’s prescribed modesty. She believes that people in the community challenged her right to wear it.
The scene changes to the Fireside Bar, the last place that Shepard was seen alive. The owner and bartender are interviewed. Matt Galloway, the bartender, relates what happened in the bar on the night that Shepard was killed. It was there that the accused murderers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, go over to Shepard, talk to him, and later leave with him.
In the next section there is a discussion about McKinney and Henderson. Residents give their opinions about the young men, most of them talking about how nice the two boys are. Henderson, they say, was an Eagle Scout, and McKinney was a “good kid.”
The last section of the first act provides the description of how Aaron Kreifels finds Shepard after he was beaten and left for dead. There is also a statement from Reggie Fluty, the first police officer on the scene, and from Dr. Cantway, the emergency-room doctor who treats Shepard upon his arrival at the hospital.
Act 2 begins with an account of the media’s arrival in Laramie after the news story about Shepard was released. There are also comments from the people of Laramie about how they responded to the news and to the reporters. There is disbelief, anger, and fear. At the arraignment, most of the people who witnessed it broke down in tears. There are discussions questioning how such a thing could have happened in Laramie.
Interspersed between various interviews are medical updates on the physical condition of Shepard, who had fallen into a coma. Meanwhile, both McKinney and Henderson plead not guilty to the charges. Citizens reflect on how they might have prevented this from happening. The bartender, Matt Galloway, believes he should have stepped in and stopped Shepard from driving away with McKinney and Henderson, sensing that the two young men were looking for trouble.
Reggie Fluty tells her story about finding Shepard. She also relates her fear that she contracted AIDS while handling Shepard’s bloody body without gloves. She must go through a series of tests to see if she is infected.
Jedadiah reflects on Shepard’s beating and questions his minister’s belief that it is wrong to be a homosexual. Several other residents keep hammering home their opinions that homosexuality is against God’s wishes. There is a vigil, organized by the Catholic priest, but none of the other ministers will attend. During the homecoming parade, a large group of Laramie residents come together, marching behind a banner for Shepard. As the parade winds around town, the group keeps growing in size.
There is another medical update. Shepard has died.
A funeral is arranged for Shepard. It is held in the Catholic Church. Not attending is Reverend Fred Phelps, who makes a statement that even God has hate. And the Reverend believes it is his job to preach God’s hate. “WE [sic] love that attribute of God, and we’re going to preach it. Because God’s hatred is pure.” The Reverend adds: “If God doesn’t hate fags, why does he put ‘em in hell?”
This prompts a reaction from Romaine Patterson; she organizes a group of friends who decide to dress up as angels after they hear that the Reverend is coming to Laramie for Henderson’s trial. “There’ll be ten to twenty of us that are angels—and what we’re gonna do is we’re gonna encircle Phelps . . . and because of our big wings—we are gonna com-plete-ly block him.”
There is the jury-selection scene and then a scene in which Henderson changes his plea from not guilty to guilty. Henderson makes a statement that he is sorry. The judge, however, does not believe Henderson is truly remorseful and sentences him to life in prison. A year later, McKinney is put on trial. During the trial, a tape of his confession is heard in which he details of the beating are related. The jury finds him guilty of felony murder, which means he could have been given the death sentence. Shepard’s father, however, asks that he be given life in prison instead.
I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney. However, this is the time to begin the healing process. To show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy. Mr. McKinney, I am going to grant you life, as hard as it is for me to do so, because of Matthew.