Courtesy of Chloe Cuff, director of "The Laramie Project."

Even after I settled into a cozy chair this past weekend, Basement Arts’s production of Moisés Kaufman’s impeccable stage play “The Laramie Project” had me riding an unsettling wave of emotion from start to finish. Due to COVID-19, Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore and director Chloe Cuff adapted the production from a minimalist stage play to a radio play with a limited window for listening. 

I’d never seen “The Laramie Project” before. When hearing about the homicide of Matthew Shepard and its aftermath as portrayed in the script — which reproduces the interviews of citizens of Laramie, Wyo., as performed by cast members of the Tectonic Theatre Project — I’d heard one adjective repeatedly used to describe the murder: graphic. 

The Matthew Shepard story has been heard many times: Two roofing workers, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, bludgeoned Shepard, tortured him, tied him to a fence post and left him to die. He was caked in blood to the extent that the person who found him thought he was a scarecrow. His tears traced a trail through his blood. The killing was later classified as motivated by homophobia.

But I soon realized something else, and that’s what was surprisingly effective about approaching “The Laramie Project” as a radio play the way Cuff does here. The voices of the characters could have been anyone. They blended into the air seamlessly like tight knitting. I was left with the feeling of a town I knew artfully stitched together, in the aftermath of cruelty no one seemed to feel they could make any sense of. 

A needed caveat: I noticed right away that the heavily accented twang of most of the characters was inaccurate. By and large, this reflects a misunderstanding that people east of the Rockies and Tetons tend to have about people in the Mountain West. With that said, it didn’t take away from the experience of the radio play. If anything, it became a subtle reinforcement of my impression that the aftermath of unfathomable cruelty often sharpens into attempts to understand one another that, while earnest, reflect cultural distortions. 

At the same time, the vocal performances of the cast members are filled with the poignant, sometimes panicked outcry of people unfamiliar with the glare of the public eye. The characters in the play — again, thanks to the stellar emotional range voiced by the cast members — can be “seen” audibly prying open the fabric of their small-town lives in search of a better way to understand. And in some of the characters, you hear something else: the brute force of the will to believe in something that manifests as religious cruelty. 

Cuff did the story justice with her production. The breadth of the voices felt like a bitter wind of memory that never stopped to breathe or recede, leaving me gripping at anything and everything for meaning as the life of Matthew Shepard slipped between the lines of dialogue. Listening to the actors enunciate emotion while seeing a field with an overbearing, high winter sun shift into darkness (an image that the production team had worked in as the background for the radio play), I was left with a sobering, piercing vision of what Shepard himself must have seen as he drifted in and out of consciousness. 

For those who don’t know, Matthew Shepard was 21 years old at the time of his brutal homicide. Regardless of any information that would surface later — some of it alleging completely unrelated sexual activity by Shepard, as well as by one of the perpetrators (a new book, “The Book of Matt,” alleges that McKinney was also gay, and also that both Shepard and McKinney were addicted to meth but separated by the gulf of class privilege) — the fact of the killing is astounding. It crossed boundaries that were largely left uncommented on at the time, such as class and sexual politics. 

I also learned that the intention was to reflect the massive indignity portrayed by the play, set in suffering, rural America — not just by Shepard, but by other Laramie residents. Some residents, voiced as characters, spoke of their struggles to maintain their marginalized identities in a place where localized taboos collided with the larger culture. 

I went to Laramie recently. While the town has changed dramatically, the rest of the state hasn’t changed much. While the Medicine Bow mountain range attracts a flock of people who love the outdoors, there are more people in Michigan Stadium on a football Saturday than there are in Laramie County.

As I’d soon learn, the people of Laramie still echo the characters’ sense of disorientation with regard to Matthew Shepard. That hasn’t changed either. As far as the script of the play itself goes, several responses from interviewees written into the play could have been given by members of the far-right today. Many more simply repeated their small-town Wyoming ideal like a chorus: “Out here, we don’t care that they’re gay so long as they don’t bother us. We live and we let live.” 

In part due to the feeling that the voices of the characters were speaking directly to an audience rather than to other characters — a result of the lack of visual cues — the cast members felt blended with the swarm of journalists.

I’m not evaluating the performance of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance students by the metric of the script’s completeness. I simply wanted to be very careful to consult a voice from the community of Laramie. So, I called the owner of a bookstore in town to inquire about the Matthew Shepard case. The owner, a woman I first met on my last drive through Laramie, told me that she has lived in Laramie since 1962, decades before Shepard’s homicide took place. 

“As far as things changing after Matthew Shepard, I think when you said the world or the country is more accepting, or, you know, it’s more visible or not shameful, I think that’s true here,” she said. “I just know how sad people were when it happened. (People were) just like, how could this be? And it was so graphic. And so I think there’s a lot of shame because even now — if I’m in Santa Barbara, California, I tell people I’m from here, and they say they know about Laramie from Matthew Shepard.” 

To that end, one gaping hole in the script itself (again, through no fault of the cast members) is its failure to acknowledge the effects of place on shaping perceptions of behavior. I wanted the characters to answer more questions: What did they know about Laramie’s past? Instead of an artful portrait of the place and the life within it, all I saw was the fogged lens of tragedy. 

This is to say that I felt the story — as it was portrayed by the script — was, by definition, incomplete. Yet, as someone who could feel myself trying to comprehend the outlines of a human being who has been relentlessly mythologized and felt that I somehow knew his impact by the play’s end, I damn well respected the members of the original theater company for their bravery and sensitivity. They were performing interview-based theatre, but it was actually plaintive, sensitive journalism. 

But the genius eye of the Kaufman script sees through the menagerie of the people who crossed paths with Matthew Shepard. These various characters lived in a town — often consumed with tolerance of different identities — while struggling to become themselves. One character is described as an Islamic feminist, who informs the audience that she lived peacefully in Wyoming from the age of four. However, she was asked to repeatedly declare her identity after she chose to wear a hijab. She confided to a cast member that living in Wyoming had left her feeling the strain of tolerance on her identity.

In her artful take on the play, Cuff prioritizes the hammering impact of language. Language can be pulled desperately out of the void, to describe the way tragedy haunts you and floods you with graphic memories. But in many places, the attempt to understand translates to anger, again played to great effect by the cast members’ inflections. 

“If you murder someone, you hate them!” one character snorts with self-righteous indignation, referring to her belief that the category of hate crime seems a silly label for something that, to her, already carried enough hate. 

The overall message seems to be that while America wanted to see the homicide as a product of small-town thinking, the human tendency to hate what one doesn’t understand cuts in a different direction, too: You might believe you aren’t capable of great violence when you don’t acknowledge the prevailing attitudes of your society or reality, but the narrative thread of delusion could snap at any time, anywhere.

Daily Arts Writer Sierra Élise Hansen can be reached at hsierra@umich.edu.