From The Gabber, February 13, 2023 by Cathy Salustri
Ghostlight’s ‘The Laramie Project’ in Gulfport has an exceptional cast charged with telling a nuanced story of a town that thought it didn’t hate – until two men killed a gay man for allegedly flirting with them.
That’s how many people attended opening night of The Laramie Project in Gulfport; of those 10, only two of us didn’t come to see friend of family. That’s a shame, because this is a show everyone should see before its all-too-short run ends Sunday (Feb. 19).
Although opening night suffered technical hiccups, every actor on stage gave a standout performance. With 67 roles and 10 actors, each plays multiple characters, a challenge each more than meets. Curt Fennell and David Warner both deliver exceptional performances that haunt you long after the show ends. (Disclaimer: Warner often reviews theater for The Gabber; this does not factor into this review).
On Oct. 7, 1998, two young men in Laramie, Wyoming savagely beat another young man, Matthew Shepard, and tied him to a fence. Five days later, Shepard died. The murder made national news. The next month, NYC-based Tectonic Theater Project interviewed residents (the first of several visits and hundreds of interviews), which the company turned into The Laramie Project, a powerful tale that dovetails stories told by those close to both Shepard or his killers with other members of the Laramie community. The beautiful, ghastly result tells the story of a community of diverse beliefs and denial. And don’t worry: The way Tectonic wove together the play makes a tough topic easier to watch, as they interspersed lighter moments throughout.
“I don’t give a damn one way or another as long as they don’t bother me.”
Zackie Salmon, portrayed by Marilyn Haegele, describes a city eerily like Gulfport:
“If you don’t know a person, you will definitely know someone they know. So it can only be one degree removed at most … I love to go to the grocery store ’cause I get to visit four or five or six people every time I go. And I don’t really mind people knowing my business –’cause what’s my business? I mean, my business is basically good.”
Jedadiah Schultz, played by Thea Fennell, echoes this sentiment, calling Laramie “a town with a personality that most larger cities are stripped of.”
Schultz caveats his glowing endorsement, though:
“Now, after Matthew, I would say that Laramie is a town defined by … a crime. We’ve become Waco…”
As the show progresses, interviews peel at the veneer and show ugliness pulsing just beneath the surface. Certainly, not all Laramie residents hated gay men, but it becomes clear to the audience that the two men who killed Shepard weren’t the only two people who took issue with the LGBTQ+ people living in Laramie.
It’s OK If You Don’t Bother Me
“I don’t give a damn one way or another as long as they don’t bother me,” Marge Murray (played by familiar face Eileen Navarro) says in a no-nonsense way.
On its surface, some would call that acceptance. However, we learn the murderers killed Shepard because he came onto them. Whether or not that happened remains unclear; however, men make unwanted advances toward women every hour and precious few get killed, so the “as long as they don’t bother me” almost implies permission to kill a gay person if they show romantic interest in someone who doesn’t reciprocate.
One takeaway at the show’s end is not “this was a terrible tragedy in a town that didn’t welcome gay people.” Rather, you may think “this was a terrible tragedy because the town was not honest enough about who they were.”
In light of contemporary Florida politics, perhaps that’s a lesson many communities should heed in advance of another tragedy.
The Laramie Project Ghostlight Young Company at Catherine Hickman Theater, 5501 27th Ave. S., Gulfport. Through Feb. 19: Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m. $20; benefit for the LGBTQ Resource Center: Feb. 18, 7:30 p.m., $30-$50. Benefit includes post-show talkback; VIP tickets include priority seating and drink. ghostlightyc.org