UMBC dramatizes a 1998 murder and its aftermath

When "The Laramie Project" was first staged in 2000, it was a joltingly topical theatrical treatment of a notorious recent hate crime. Sad to say, Moises Kaufman's play remains topical, as we're reminded by the confident student revival at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

This docu-drama has its basis in the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay student at the University of Wyoming. Responding to this brutal crime with journalistic speed, the playwright and members of the Tectonic Theatre Project interviewed an assortment of people.

Some knew the student well, while others are Laramie residents commenting more generally about how this incident affected their town. Shepard as an individual is notable by his absence in the resulting roster of characters.

Combining quotations from those interviews and court testimony from the trial of the two young men accused of killing Shepard, Kaufman's script gives a bracing account of a hate crime and what amounts to its ideological aftermath. This particular case registered in the national consciousness, so you can imagine the extent to which it was the talk of the town in Laramie itself.

Although Kaufman and his creative team did an admirable job of editing all of that actual commentary into a tightly constructed script, they did not entirely avoid the stilted stand-and-deliver quality that's perhaps inevitable in staging such a documentary project.

The play is broken up into numerous short scenes in which briefly illuminated characters speak their minds. Their statements always make it clear who they are and how they feel about events, but the play's structure does not allow for some of their individual personalities to develop with much depth.

What ultimately matters in this particular play is its polemical message, of course, and "The Laramie Project" remains a disturbing reminder of the deadly consequences of intolerance.

The play's thematic force is persuasively conveyed by an ensemble cast that's called upon to change identities at the drop of, well, a cowboy hat.

Directed by UMBC theater department faculty member Nyalls Hartman, the student actors are Christopher Dews, Katie Hileman, Jessie Poole, David Brasington, Josh Holober-Ward, Anderson Wells, Samrawit Belai, Shannon Ziegler, Meghan Hudecheck, Sam Van Sant, Dan Friedman and Brad Widener.

Although they're to be praised for portraying such an assortment of real-life characters, it's mildly disconcerting that there's such a range of western accents heard among those characters presented as longtime Laramie residents. Some of the actors also seem overly self-conscious about assuming character-defining voices and gestures, but that's understandable under these challenging circumstances.

Taking both the script's highly segmented construction and the youthfulness of the cast into account, it's notable that this production flows pretty well. You're pulled into the story and won't be bothered by a few mild bumps along the way. As the play chronologically takes you from the murder to the ensuing trial, you're kept busy sorting out motives and opinions.

Besides the emotionally committed cast, the production benefits from UMBC theater department faculty member Elena Zlotescu's spare set design. The wood chip-covered stage floor is only occupied by the widely spaced actors, a few pieces of wood furniture, and several fence-evocative wood rails. Zlotescu takes advantage of UMBC's wide stage and low ceiling, evoking a bleak Wyoming setting seemingly stretching into the horizon.

Daniel Covey's astutely selected and lit slide projections at the back of that set provide us with documentary images of the town's architecture and surrounding landscape.

Zlotescu also did the costumes. She has been known to come up with wildly exaggerated costumes for previous shows at UMBC, but here she dresses the large cast in deliberately subdued earth tones, corresponding to what ordinary people might wear. It's suitable that the costumes do not call attention to themselves, because the words are everything in this documentary play.

"The Laramie Project" runs through Sunday, Dec. 11 at the UMBC Theatre, 1000 Hilltop Circle, in Catonsville. Remaining performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10, $5 for seniors and students. Call 410-455-2476 or go to

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