Laughter, tragedy come together in ‘Laramie’

<strong>Priceless Gems</strong> Pat Price

Priceless Gems Pat Price

Sometimes you just have to go out on a limb and that’s exactly what we have done. Actually, we’ve done it for a lot of good reasons, but I’m already way ahead of myself here.

Who is treading on that precarious limb? Workshop Players Theatre. Where is that? Middle Ridge Road in Amherst, a mere seven miles from Oberlin and 14 from Wellington. What caused this limb shaking? It’s our production of “The Laramie Project” by Moises Kaufman. Why does that present a challenge of balancing on that limb? Workshop Players often deals with lighter fare in order to leave audiences smiling and laughing.

People love to laugh. “The Laramie Project” is potentially controversial and it has some pretty harsh language at times. How, then, did Workshop reach the decision to present this play? It’s an important piece. It’s about the need for tolerance, the destruction of hate in lieu of acceptance. It’s about hope. It’s a powerful piece and frankly, with it we hope to bring in new people.

Workshop Players Theatre is in its 68th year of operation. We are the longest running theater-in-the-round in Ohio. It is amazing, however, how many people don’t even know we exist. This past year we purchased a big sign for the front of the parking lot announcing our former one room schoolhouse that looks a bit like an old church as a theater. New patrons have come in saying, “Really, we never knew this was a theater!” They leave, having enjoyed our intimate space and vow to return.

We don’t always present comedies, of course. Most recently we had great success with our productions of the Tennessee Williams classic “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and Michael Paller’s adaptation of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Yet, Laramie is different.

In 1998, Matthew Shepard, a young gay man, was taken out onto the prairie and bound to a buck fence where Aaron James McKinney and Russell Arthur Henderson robbed him, beat him, tortured him, and left him there to die. He was discovered by a young man who was out for a bike ride. He called for help and Matthew was taken to the hospital. His injuries were too severe for the local Laramie medical facility and he was transferred to a hospital in Fort Collins, Colo., where he later died. The case gained national attention and spurred the discussion concerning hate crimes.

Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Company traveled to Laramie and conducted more than 200 interviews with residents of the town. The play is edited from those interviews, journal entries of the company members, and other found texts. Actors all play multiple roles as the story unfolds. Audience members get to see all sides, including the funeral that was interrupted by the Rev. Fred Phelps. Come see how he is dealt with. It’s amazingly creative and effective and it’s truly what they did.

So there it is. With the presentation of this powerful piece we hope that some who have never been to our black box theater that is so very close to all readers of this publication, will come through our doors. Naturally, we hope that our regulars will also come to experience this meaningful collage.

When I was a theater major at Baldwin Wallace back in the early 1970s, the controversy raged: Is theater meant to make people think or is it to entertain? That particular era scoffed at Neil Simon and the like as fluff. It had to be deep. It had to provoke. I never agreed because I do think that theater can do both. I love to laugh. As a matter of fact I am directing a Neil Simon comedy at Workshop this coming summer (“The Star Spangled Girl”), but I maintain that “The Laramie Project” does both. It truly makes one think but at the same time it entertains. I do hope you will come to see it. It’s an important play. (I play nine roles by the way!)

I’m counting on the strength of that limb when I think of the strength of this show.

When does it run? The Laramie Project opens Thursday, Jan. 28 and runs Jan. 29 and 30; and Feb. 5, 6, 12, and 13 all at 8 p.m.; with matinees Feb. 7 and 14 at 3 p.m.

Workshop Players Theater is located at 44820 Middle Ridge Rd., Amherst. Call 440-988-5613 for tickets or visit ($13 each, group rates available, small fee for using a credit card).

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