The Wash
actor in lab coat on stage
Courtesy Sam West

Theatergoers find a “message of hope” in local retelling of the Laramie Project

Director Paul Di Salvo and producer Genie Baskir present the dramaturgy of tragic events in small-town America.

The Little Theatre of Alexandria performed the Laramie Project last Friday precisely 25 years after the murder of Matthew Shepard which the production is based on.

“Matthew lives forever,” said Genie Baskir, the show’s producer.

Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson abducted and beat Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming, on October 6, 1998. Shepard died of the wounds six days later at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado. His attackers used the gay panic defense in court because of Shepard’s sexual orientation.

actors on stage
Courtesy of Sam West

The murder and subsequent fallout inspired Moisés Kaufman and the New York-based Tectonic Theater Project to visit Wyoming to interview locals. The resulting dramaturgy  connected these first-hand accounts of Shepard and the aftermath into a documentary for the stage, said Baskir.

“He’s a tragic figure, but he’s not literary. He’s real,” Baskir said.

The performance featured actors in shirts whose colors formed the pride flag in summation. Each portrayed multiple real-life figures, often with simple additional costuming such as a scarf or lab coat to differentiate characters. The straightforward, bare presentation resonated with Christopher Patrick, a member of the audience.

“The Laramie Project, for me as a gay man raised in the South, hits close to home,” Patrick said. “The interviews ring true with the personification of small-town America: an idealization of hometown values with a callousness towards those that don’t fit in.”

Patrick also said he found a “message of hope” throughout the performance. He said, “It’s a poignant piece that is as relevant, if not more so, in today’s social climate.”

actor takes call on stage
Courtesy of Sam West

Paul Di Salvo said he was drawn to the project because of “the continuation of attacks” towards the LGBTQ+ community. He referenced the mass shootings at Pulse Nightclub and Club Q, but added that the attacks are not just physical but social and legislative.

Di Salvo described finding a relatable story in the Laramie Project: a universal found through the idiosyncratic specifics of Shepard.

“We’ve all had similar thoughts about our passions, insecurities and desire to be happy with the people around us,” Di Salvo said.

Fred Lash, who does public relations for the theater, said the theater knew performing heavy, politically divisive subject matter would be difficult. Ultimately, “we decided to take it on as a challenge,” Lash said.

The Little Theatre of Alexandria performance featured an original score by Geoff Baskir, according to Lash.

Little Theatre of Alexandria
Cameron Adams / The Wash

The production stated the proceeds from the performance went to the Matthew Shepard Foundation. The foundation, created by Shepard’s parents, looks to use his story and ethos “to replace hate with understanding, compassion, and acceptance,” according to its website.

The Little Theatre of Alexandria has been in operation since 1934. The second and final performance of the Laramie Project will take place on Thursday, October 12, to commemorate the day he died of his wounds.

“I hope you all will take away a positive message from our show,” said Di Salvo. “We all are people. We are all equally deserving of dignity and respect and grace.”

Cameron Adams

Cameron Adams is an emerging journalist covering Alexandria, Virginia for the Wash. He is currently pursuing a Master's Degree in Journalism at American University.

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