The Tectonic Theatre Company's original "Laramie Project" was moving in part because it took a huge national event and downsized it to the personal — to the actual words of small-town residents affected by the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard. A gay college student in Laramie, Wyo., Shepard was brutally killed — beaten, tied to a fencepost on a cold night and left to die.
Moises Kaufman and colleagues in the theater company conducted a series of interviews with Laramie residents and then edited the conversations into a play. After a decade, they repeated the exercise, and it's this sequel that's onstage at Rollins College.
Seen at Thursday night's preview performance, "The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later" seems designed to instruct a new generation about the significance of Shepard's death and how it galvanized the fight for hate-crimes legislation. Perhaps to reach that generation, director Thomas Oullette has created a flashy production, with swooping spotlights, TV footage, a YouTube video and a couple of startling sound effects contributing to the multimedia sensory experience.
But Kaufman and company have interjected a lot of preachy politicking into "10 Years Later": The play is near bursting with outrage that there's no federal hate-crimes law, but the Defense of Marriage Act prohibits gay marriage. (Woven into the final segment of the 2008 play is an explanation of the eventual overturning of the marriage act and the 2009 passage of a hate-crimes law that bears Shepard's name.)
Of course, there's nothing wrong with the theatrical tradition of agitprop — a word combining agitation and propaganda, used to describe an artistic work with a political point of view. But in taking this route, Kaufman gives up the touching intimacy of the first play, and in doing so, sacrifices emotional resonance.
Oullette's performers help restore the personal touch. Casey Casteel effectively conveys the conflicting emotions of a legislator's passionate speech. Kami Spaulding gives a touchingly straightforward portrayal of Shepard's mother, Judy,
Most chilling: Ryan Roberson and Taylor Sorrel portray Shepard's killers with matter-of-fact simplicity.
Nearly 15 years to the day after Shepard's death, the case still stirs debate. A book released this week claims new evidence casts doubt on calling Shepard's death a hate crime; the Matthew Shepard Foundation says the author is "rewriting history."
A running thread through the play is the search for truth as Kaufman points out the folly of believing everything we're told, whether in the media, by acquaintances or through simple gossip. In this "I read it on the Internet, it must be true" day and age, that may be the play's most timely message.
'The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later'
• Length: 2 hours, including intermission
• When: 8 p.m. Sept. 27-28 and Oct. 2-4; 4 p.m. Sept. 29; 2 and 8 p.m. Oct. 5
• Where: Annie Russell Theatre, Rollins College, 1000 Holt Ave., Winter Park
• Tickets: $10-$25
• Call: 407-646-2145
• Activist Alan Bounville will discuss his "Into the Light" walk across the country in support of sexual-orientation equality at 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28. Bounville, a former Central Florida resident, will give his free talk at the Annie Russell Theatre.