In a time when the world is still grappling with unspeakable events and man’s inhumanity to man, The Laramie Project — currently running at the North Fork Community Theatre in Mattituck through March 13 — is a chilling and challenging reminder about the depths of hatred and the heights of humanity within ourselves and our communities.
Hailed as a compelling, gripping and intensely powerful piece of documentary theater when it debuted 23 years ago, The Laramie Project is a series of verbatim interviews conducted by Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project with a variety of real people in the traumatized town of Laramie, Wyoming in the aftermath of the senseless, brutal death of 21-year-old gay college student Matthew Shepard, who was kidnapped, savagely beaten, tied to a fence and left to die in the plains of Laramie in 1998. Barely breathing, Shepard was found by chance by a kid on a bicycle and after five days in a coma, he died in a Colorado hospital with his family around him.
The intensity, sadness and beauty of the play is not lost on Huck Hirsch, who is directing the production of The Laramie Project at the North Fork Community Theatre and who submitted it to NFCT where it was chosen out of over 50 submissions as one of its four main stage productions.
“As a 56-year-old gay man who very well remembers living through the Matt Shepard (aftermath) — he was George Floyd in 1998,” says Hirsch. “The Laramie Project is about loss, it’s about community, it’s about tragedy, it’s about unconscionable things that happened and senseless murders and losing people prematurely … that resonates for so many people beyond the gay journey forward in this country.”
The idea to stage The Laramie Project came out of a series of weekly play readings on Zoom that Hirsch, a Cutchogue resident, had initiated with a group of theater-minded friends when the pandemic first hit and shutdowns put a halt to a local play that Hirsch was involved in.
Hirsch picked the weekly plays and the group read them on Zoom among themselves. Ever creative, he began to choose plays based on themes. And then nine months into the weekly Tuesday play readings on Zoom, the idea of reading The Laramie Project as a great ensemble production hit him. Hirsch needed something to fill the slot on Tuesday, December 1, 2020 and in an eerily divine coincidence, Hirsch realized that December 1 happened to be Matthew Shepard’s birthday.
But instead of keeping it to the Zoom actors, Hirsch asked the Tuesday play club members to ask friends to join the Zoom. They added a few props to make it more presentational. And in a forward-thinking moment meant to avoid the end-of-Zoom-feeling of disconnection and abruptness, Hirsch built in a talkback time after the Zoom, due to the sensitive nature of the material. Some people stayed. And that’s when he knew he was on to something.
“People were crying, sharing, talking,” says Hirsch, adding that the talkback made him realize “just how much more meaningful the play was. … It just triggers a lot,” says Hirsch.
During the run-through, Hirsch says the guy who does the props for the play (Stephen Ness) — “who sat through it five or six times, was balling.” Hirsch’s reaction? “I was like, ‘The well doesn’t run dry.’ These feelings, these hopes, these dreams for the world we live in are deep.”
Says Ness about what moved him to tears, “The moment when Matthew’s father reads the statement about his son, gets to me every time. I cried at every rehearsal and every performance … all I could think of was my parents who lost two of my brothers and the heartache that stayed with them for the remainder of their life. The Shepards had one son. All their hopes and dreams for him were gone. My wife and I have one daughter, I can’t fathom how parents get on with their life.”
Hirsch seems immeasurably proud and respectful of the commitment and time given by the cast of 15 actors, who play 80-plus characters and volunteer their time for this production.
“It’s a beautifully diverse cast of 20-year-old college students to a couple of 60-to-70 year-old locals — it’s really a range of people, which is also something I love about ensemble theater. … They are all talented, beautiful, amazing people.”
For this production, Hirsch is utilizing the theater’s new large screen projection video wall to integrate into the play’s 40 scenes the images of Laramie he got when working with a local photographer there. The video wall is a modern touch to what he describes as a theater that is “pretty charming in its oldness.”
In terms of bringing quality community theater to the East End, Hirsch, who by day runs a design and construction business on the North Fork with his partner of 23 years, says he is “living my own dream” in terms of personal fulfillment. He says he wants to “empower theater in this community to become a more important thing.”
How does Hirsch think the production will be received?
“I expect that we are mostly to be preaching to the choir, which is not a bad thing either because it’s just a beautiful piece of theater and it’s just a really open wound for many people on many levels … the wound itself of shame, acceptance and validation,” says Hirsch, adding, “The Laramie Project is trying to give a space for healing — and your own grief and your own struggles. … We all have a voice, we all have a place in our own communities … it reminds us that we have the power if we choose to use it.”
The Laramie Project is running at the North Fork Community Theatre in Mattituck March 4–6 and 11–13 with a talkback after the March 6 performance. Admission is $20. For more information and tickets visit nfct.com or call 631-298-6328.