'The Laramie Project' at Onyx devastating but not without hope

I avoided two previous Las Vegas runs of “The Laramie Project,” a docu-drama about Matthew Shepard’s 1998 murder in Laramie, Wyo., because I didn’t want to face the painful emotions I knew the subject would stir.

The play is based on interviews with the people of Laramie and “found texts” gathered by Moises Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project after the murder of the young gay man.

This powerful production directed by David Ament for Off-Strip Productions at the Onyx Theatre is emotionally devastating but not without hope.

Kaufman gently introduces us to the people of Laramie in a series of vignettes that reminded me of the opening number of “The Music Man” — “There’s nothing halfway about the Iowa way to greet you” — or, better, Truman Capote’s prologue to “In Cold Blood.”

Laramie’s not a half-bad place to live — if not for a gay man having been beaten and left to die there. The attitudes of the out-of-staters seem a little snooty compared with the down-to-earth townsfolk. But slowly the homespun conversations begin to reveal Laramie’s deep class divisions and vein of religiously bred homophobia.

Ament uses these interviews to masterfully build the suspense of a murder mystery — the haunting question of the town’s collective responsibility for the murderous act of two of its sons. One character accuses, “Come on, let’s show the world that Laramie is not this kind of a town. But it is this kind of a town. If it wasn’t, then why did this happen here?”

Ament doesn’t permit us a black-and-white morality.

When the doctor who fights to save Matthew’s life realizes that he also treated Aaron McKinney, one of Matthew’s murderers, on the same night, he observes that they’re both “just kids.” The doctor, movingly played by John Ivanoff, wonders if God looks at us with the same compassion that he feels for both boys.

We are horrified when at McKinney’s trial, juror after juror voices a quick willingness to put McKinney to death. Ivanoff, who like all the actors in the production plays multiple roles, also gives voice to Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father, pleading at McKinney’s trial for his life. As portrayed by Ivanoff, Mr. Shepard’s mercy seems strained by McKinney’s obvious lack of remorse.

By casting his talented ensemble in morally opposite roles, Ament brilliantly illustrates Solzhenitsyn’s observation that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart.

Lysander Abadia plays both a homophobic farmer, who sees a moral equivalency between Matthew’s homosexuality and his murderers’ homicide, and the crime’s chief investigating officer who earnestly voices the town’s cry for justice. (Equally outstanding is Natalie Senecal who plays a first responder who is exposed to HIV as she works frantically to save Matthew’s life.)

Mikey Phillips is both Matthew’s lesbian best friend and McKinney’s tweeker pal. Lee Meyers plays both a lesbian college professor and a patrol officer’s wife who chillingly complains that Shepard’s murder has overshadowed a cop’s recent traffic death. Cody Smock is both the conflicted young Christian man who finds the mortally wounded Matthew and Aaron McKinney, his murderer. Greg Baine is a cast standout as the comically vain bartender and as the sinister Baptist minister whose hate speech may have planted a murderous seed in one of Matthew’s attackers.

Ament sustains the duality when he pairs Jessica Hird with Lee Meyers as two boozy social workers and with Natalie Senecal as the courageous first responder’s tough but big-hearted mom. The incredible cast moves seamlessly from character to character.

Matthew is left to die tied “like a scarecrow” to a buck fence that becomes a ladder to heaven against a backdrop of “the last thing that he saw on this earth — the sparkling lights of Laramie, Wyoming,” in David Sankuer’s set design that evokes the play’s sustaining theme, “This whole thing ropes around hope. H-O-P-E.”