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Steel River’s ‘ Laramie project’ is thought-provoking, relevant theater

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY CHERYL THORNBURG
cthornburg@berksmontnews.com

Plays often hold up a mirror to real life, but when the play is based on actual events and the actual words of real people, it is has even more impact. Such is the case with Steel River Playhouse’s current production, “The Laramie Project” which runs through March 26. It is based on the true story of Matthew Shepard, a young gay college student who was kidnapped, beaten and tied to a fence and left for dead for 18 hours in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998. He was barely alive when he was found and taken to the hospital where he died just a few days later. His life and death touched the nation and prompted legislation to deal with hate crimes. The foundation named after him continues to promote legislation and raise awareness of the violence that the LBGTQ+ community faces.

IF YOU GO
“The Laramie Project” runs through Sunday, March 26. Showtime is 8 p.m. (Thursday/Friday/Saturday) and 2 p.m. (Saturday/Sunday). Tickets are $29 for Adult, $24 for Senior (65+) and $17 for Student. Tickets can be ordered online at www.steelriver.org. Discounts available for groups of 10 or more. Steel River Playhouse is located at 245 East High St., Pottstown.

The play is based on news accounts and hundreds of interviews taken by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project who went to Laramie following Shepard’s murder. They spent the next year interviewing the people of the town. The result is a series of vignettes portraying actual conversations and memories of the people of Laramie and the team from the theater group. The violent incident the play is based on is not shown graphically, but talked about by characters in the aftermath. The town of Laramie, in a way, is the main character of the play.
Eleven actors play more than 60 characters, which presents a major challenge to the actors and they more than meet that challenge, moving from one character to another with changes in voice, body language and gestures to portray often very diverse people.
Director Stacey Michaud has gathered some of the area’s best actors to bring this very poignant story to the Steel River main stage. Each actor plays five or six diverse characters, and each has many opportunities to shine as they portray the genuine thoughts and emotions of people on all sides of the issue.

JJ Van Name (center), Stephen Waters (back left) and Sebastian Antomio (back right) in “The Laramie Project.”
Submitted photo

The cast includes Sebastian Antonio, Andrea Cronin, Joe Donley, Danielle Foley, Ben Fried, Don Green, Marianne Green, Barb Hannevig, Hannah Paczkowski, J.J Van Name and Stephen Waters.
The difficulty in reviewing this show is figuring out “Who’s who.” The actors are never portraying a character for long and are changing positions on the stage. They were all so good at being chameleons, that it is a challenge for the reviewer to keep track.
There are several scenes and characters that stand out. In the final act, we get to see the two boys tried for Matthew’s murder. Sebastian Antonio plays Russell Henderson, who does seem remorseful and Joe Donley, plays Aaron McKinney, who does not. They both give finely nuanced performances of these complex people.
There are scenes between Danielle Foley, playing a deputy sheriff and Barb Hannevig as her mother, that are heartbreaking.
Ben Fried plays characters that are at both ends of the spectrum, from the inflammatory preacher of the Westboro Baptist Church who comes to protest at Matthew’s funeral to the good-natured sheriff and a host of others. He switches from one character to another as easy as flipping a light switch — at least he makes it look easy.
The most visually memorable scene involves a character played by Hannah Paczkowski, who organizes a band of angels with huge wings to block the Bible-thumping preacher from view. Kudos to Ally Boughter for these dramatic and effective costumes.
Don’t let the serious subject matter of this play put you off. There are some funny moments and the messages in the play are worth repeating again and again. You will probably recognize yourself or family members or neighbors among the people of Laramie. Their words ring true because they are the words of real people, many of whom are still alive.
At the conclusion of Friday’s performance, Jason Marsden, the Executive Director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation and a friend of Matthew’s lead a discussion with lots of questions from the audience. “The Laramie Project” got many people thinking — and that’s what it’s all about.

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