A hate crime that made headlines in 1998 is revisited in GreenMan Theatre’s production of “The Laramie Project” by Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project. The play is based on hundreds of interviews done by members of that theater company following the murder in Laramie, Wyo., of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming.
“I feel that the story is still important to us 15 years after Matthew’s murder,” said GreenMan’s Artistic Director David Soria of Lombard who directs the production. He noted that studies show that gay students in middle schools, high schools and colleges are still often “singled out for bullying and even violence. They are more likely to be targeted because of either their sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation.”
Soria noted that the play neither preaches nor judges. Instead it presents “a community’s reaction to the crime. I think it’s a masterful interweaving of these different voices.”
Eight actors play more than 60 characters.
Frank Warpeha of Oak Brook plays three key characters in the show, as well as a number of minor roles.
Warpeha’s major parts include Doc O’Connor, “a limousine driver that lived in that area for 40 years,” the actor said. “He knows everybody and everybody knows him.”
Warpeha also plays Matt Galloway, a student and bartender who is a key eyewitness at the trial, as well as anti-gay minister Fred Phelps.
Warpeha admitted that, before being cast in the show, he knew little about the Shepard case. “Now I know a lot more,” he said. “I did a lot of general research on the town and on the actual events. A lot of my research revolved around the descriptions I was given for the characters. I looked at what the characters did and the general life of a person in that profession. Then I matched that with general research on the town of Laramie and put it together.”
This play is still relevant today, Warpeha observed, because, “A lot of people’s opinions and attitudes towards gay people haven’t changed.”
Ben Armstrong of Bensenville plays Rulon Stacey, the CEO of the hospital where Shepard died. He also plays the chief investigating officer, Det. Sgt. Rob DeBree, and a conciliatory Catholic priest, Father Roger Schmit.
Armstrong noted that he was vaguely aware of the Shepard murder case when he was cast in the show because he was only 9 or 10 when the murder occurred.
“Since everybody that I’m playing is an actual character, I was hoping to find more about these people,” Armstrong said. “But they seem to have faded into the pages of history. The characters are ending up to be more of a product of my imagination than I had originally envisioned them to be.”
“The themes are sort of timeless,” believes Armstrong, who grew up in Byron, Ill., two hours west of Chicago. “In the characters of the show I see that same ambivalence and almost willful ignorance that I saw growing up.”
Armstrong hopes the audience leaves the theater “with fewer answers than they came in with.”
When it comes to hate crimes, “There is still a great deal of education that needs to be done,” director Soria concluded. “Theater can have an important voice in furthering dialogue about important issues that we’re grappling with as a society.”