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South County Stages a Haunting 'Laramie Project'

Leslie Roth, a student at Westfield High School reviews South County's "The Laramie Project."

Radiant blue skies and wispy clouds illuminate residents' silhouettes. Individuals are questioned, and stories are shared as the background shifts, resembling frame changes in a news broadcast. An emergency hospital, a candlelight vigil, a solemn courtroom, the rolling countryside with haunting buck-style fence. Images tracing the gruesome violence and turbulent aftermath of manifested hate. Amid tragedy and public scrutiny, families and the community strive to heal and learn, as one word lingers, rising into countrywide conscience: H-O-P-E.

South County's presentation of "The Laramie Project," inventively assembled by playwright-director Moises Kaufman, is deeply moving. The success of this play, drawn from actual events, can be attributed to its raw and compassionate account of the ripple effect of a gruesome killing. On Oct. 7, 1998, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was kidnapped and beaten to death. He was gay.

The play challenges audience members to take an inside look at a town defined by crime and adjusting to cope with its predicament. Bringing to light the uncomfortable subjects of "gay panic" and other divisive prejudices, "The Laramie Project" underscores the responsibility of the individual in uniting the fabric of humanity.

Versatile actors invigorated characters with integrity and sincerity. Kevin Lutz gave riveting performances as he took on multiple characters. As the good-humored Doc O'Connor, Lutz captured a local spirit with verve and spunk. Equally mesmerizing but in complete contrast, his gritty portrayal of brutal perpetrator Russell Henderson was charged with gruff vocalization and heavy physicality.

Assuming two polar-opposite identities, Kyle O'Connor's rendering of the unforgiving protest leader Fred Phelps made his quick transition to the heart-rending Dennis Shepard monologue all the more laudable. O'Connor brought impeccable honesty to the pivotal roles.

Colloquial mannerisms and developed relationships made Jodie Audetsey's characterization of Laramie resident Marge quite endearing. The scenes between Marge and her daughter Reggie were moving and recounted Reggie's selfless actions and her consequently getting AIDS.

Three large screens onstage provided an extraordinarily adaptable canvas, generating bold stage pictures -- a sweeping panoramic of Laramie. Ever-shifting, expertly executed light cues gave way to swift, yet effective, beat changes. Stories overlapped seamlessly, and color splashes on the cyclorama heightened the play's emotional intensity.

Several moments were memorably high-concept, employing videography and multiple vantage points. As Rulon Stacy (Ally Barrale) delivered her tear-streaked announcement outside the hospital, cameras onstage captured her speech from two angles and projected it onto screens.

Vast wings donned by Romaine Patterson's protest group were a breathtaking visual, depicting a peaceful demonstration. Although technical complexity caused occasional timing problems with line cues and projected titles, those obstacles were more than compensated by conceptual artistry.

Once the lights dimmed, all that remained visible were the glittering stars of the Laramie sky, and the audience felt as though it had truly visited this altered community. South County's cast courageously tackled mature themes and sounded a call to action for community compassion.

By Washington Post Editors  |  November 13, 2008; 12:25 PM ET
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