AUBURN – “The Laramie Project” is an unusual piece of theater, and Community Little Theatre’s current production has mastered its many challenges.

A talented ensemble of eight actors portrays a kaleidoscope of more than 70 characters. They are real people – scared, glib, quirky, confused – whose thoughts and feelings about a sensational hate murder were collected over 18 months of interviews.

The play unfolds as eight members of the Tectonic Theatre Project reveal what they learned when they went from New York City to Laramie, Wyo., in the months after the brutal hate-driven beating of Matthew Shepard.

That 1998 tragedy traumatized the townspeople and led to headlines around the world.

Under the leadership of Moisés Kaufman, the team conducted more than 200 interviews with people who were close to the situation, as well as citizens and students in the small college town.

Those snapshots of a small town’s reaction to unwelcome attention are woven into what’s described as a docudrama. The emphasis most certainly is on drama, and the way this story unfolds in spellbinding intensity attests to the ability of Linda Britt, who directs the show.

With only a few changes of hats, coats, scarves and other apparel, the actors take on the personae of young and old characters affected by the tragedy.

It is Mark Hazard as Father Roger Schmit who delivers the lines that resonate throughout the play and long after. The priest who is determined to speak out against this act of hate, yet distressed by the hesitation of fellow clergymen, tells interviewers: “I will trust you people that if you write a play of this, that you say it right, say it correct.”

Hazard, who had lead roles in CLT productions of “Proof” and “A Few Good Men,” also gives an excellent portrayal as Jonas Slonaker, whose views on life as a middle-aged gay man in Laramie give a bittersweet perspective to the place and time.

Jackie McDonald is outstanding as the police officer who was first on the scene of the beating. She describes her trained reaction as she tried to help the bleeding man, and the fear and uncertainty that followed when she learns she may have been exposed to an HIV infection.

Mary Lessard provides comic relief with the comments of a proud but worried mother of the policewoman.

Those moments of humor are not the only ones. Despite its serious nature, there are plenty of laughs in “The Laramie Project.”

Don Libby delivers his roles with skill. As Doc O’Connor, a street-savvy limousine driver, the lesser-known side of Laramie is seen. Libby also has an appearance as Rev. Fred Phelps, the preacher who gained notoriety in recent years when he and others picketed funerals of soldiers who died in Iraq. Phelps picketed the Shepard funeral and trial. The play tells how students wearing large homemade angel wings surrounded and hid him in an effort to counter the message of hate.

Other outstanding moments are provided by Becky Shor. Wearing a baseball cap and jacket, she becomes the young boy who finds Shepard tied to the fence where he was beaten.

Mariah Perry is memorable for her portrayal of Catherine Connolly, one of the first college professors in the community to “come out” as a gay person. The hate crime instills an uncontrollable fear in her.

Matt Delamater, in his second appearance in a Community Little Theatre production, gives a memorable performance as Matt Galloway, the bartender who sees Shepard leave with the two young men who will be his killers. Delamater puts the right mix of swagger and egotism into the role, which also reveals Galloway’s surprising sensitivity.

John Blanchette has the play’s first words as Moisés Kaufman, who describes the interview and writing process. He also has the searing last words when, as Dennis Shepard, the victim’s father, he tells one of the murderers in court that he is granting him life in prison rather than a death sentence so he can think of his son every day.

The performances on opening night Friday earned a standing ovation from the audience. Many in the audience were saying, “I’m glad I came.”


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