Story last updated at 2:47 p.m. Friday, August 9, 2002

'The Laramie Project' takes stage at Pier One

Taking aim at hate

Mark Kelsey
On the Aisle

photo: entertainment
  Photo by Mark Kelsey, Homer News
Ceil Manchester, centers, runs a scene from "The Laramie Project" with fellow cast members Claudia Ehli, left, and Jerami Youngblood. The Pier One Theatre production depicts the 1998 murder of a gay university student in Laramie. Manchester said the importance of the play is in its message that "there's too much hate in the world. There's hate in us that we don't realize."  

With just a handful of notable lapses, the history of theater has paralleled the history of Western civilization. Theater has evolved along the way, offering up both entertainment and enlightenment, but always within the context of its function as a mirror image of the socio-cultural times that spawn it.

In "The Laramie Project," the latest offering of Homer's Pier One Theatre, Director Raniece Sutton and her cast and crew bring to life the story of the 1998 kidnapping, torture and brutal murder of Matthew Shepherd, a gay, 21-year-old University of Wyoming student.

The nontraditional format of the playwriting process that resulted in "The Laramie Project" downplays the more traditional conflict-based drama. Instead, it stands as a series of vignettes and re-enactments of journal entries, newspaper stories and the memories of the people of Laramie before, during and after the incident that brought infamy to their quiet all-American town nearly four years ago.

  Photo by Mark Kelsey, Homer News
Ken Landfield, as Fred Phelps, delivers a "fire and brimstone" message while Kyle Hookstra, above and behind, offers a message of tolerance to his congragation, inclding Dan Westerberg at lower left.  
While the staging of the piece posed many a challenge for the company -- including a few of the blocking and lighting sort -- no one, least of all Sutton, seemed to doubt its stage-worthiness for a Homer audience.

"It is a remarkable piece of work," said Sutton, who, after weeks of rehearsal and months of planning, still admitted to seeing the play through different eyes on opening night last Friday.

A school psychologist by vocation, Sutton said she's seen some of the play's general themes of hatred and intolerance played out in the halls of the high school.

"In some respects, we are very lucky in Homer," she said. "But some people spread hate in different ways."

  Photo by Mark Kelsey, Homer News
Reuben Sherwood takes center stage in a scene from Pier One Theatre's "The Laramie Project."  
Subtlety is definitely not a strength of this script, which occasionally is overly preachy. But subtlety can be found in two very fine performances, which couple with the inherent factuality of the story and reality of the characters to bring the Pier One production its most powerful moments.

Sutton has assembled a cast of 10 actors with varying degrees of stage experience. Most play more than one character, but none do it better than Carolyn Norton and Ken Landfield, who punctuate several scenes with just the right touch of emotion, elevating them and giving them immediacy beyond the context of the play.

Norton, who is just 21 but already a veteran of the stage, made her first appearance at Pier One as a 1-month-old infant in a 1981 production of "Scrooge." She has gone on to play an array of roles since, but none, she said, has been as challenging or demanding as the multiple roles she plays in "The Laramie Project."

"It's different when you're dealing with real people," she said. "You can't take liberties (as an actor). They're real people. You have to respect that."

A natural on stage, Norton showed her respect and admiration for the characters through an arsenal of acting talent. Her interpretations were at once warm, sensitive and extremely human without ever being cloying or overbearing.

Norton said that during the rehearsal process she recognized the familiarity and comfort with which the play's characters relate to each other and to Laramie.

"It's the same kind of relationship that everyone has in Homer," she said. "It's easy to fictionalize this, but (hatred is) real. It's out there. It's out here."

The vortex of intolerance and hypocrisy in "The Laramie Project" is embodied in the character of Fred Phelps, the fiery and bombastic minister who took his homophobic message to the pulpit and streets of Laramie even while the incident was in the national spotlight. Phelps is deftly and frighteningly rendered by Landfield, who showed remarkable range in his portrayal of five very distinct characters, including a refreshingly comic turn as a chauffeur.

Underscoring the dual role of theater through the ages, Landfield said his attraction to the play transcends the frivolous.

"Some shows you do for the sheer joy of it," he wrote in the program notes. "Others you do because it's simply important to do them. This is one of those shows."

"The Laramie Project" runs tonight through Sunday and again next Friday through Sunday. Friday and Saturday shows begin at 8:15 p.m., while the Sunday and Thursday shows begin at 7:30 p.m.

Folks in the market for the kind of light-hearted romp presented in Pier One's last offering, the musical comedy "Nunsense," should probably skip this one. And though there were a handful of children in the opening night audience, parents should be aware of the sensitive nature of the subject matter and of the sometimes graphic descriptions that are a part of "The Laramie Project."

But for those whose tastes encompass the more serious, "The Laramie Project" -- the heavy-handedness of its script notwithstanding -- should fit the bill. It is a powerful story of the regenerative power of love and forgiveness and of the ability of ordinary people to rise above extraordinary hatred and fear.

Mark Kelsey ( is the editor and general manager of the Homer News.