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Learned Behavior 

by Michael Bowen


In October 1998, a couple of punks took a 21-year-old gay man to a fence on a perpetually windy plateau, beat him until he was encased in his own blood and had lapsed into a coma, then tied him up crucifixion-style and left him to die.


Sensing all the imminent recriminations and defensiveness, a dozen New York actors descended on southern Wyoming to take a town's political temperature by interviewing witnesses and residents.


Moises Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project then fashioned a play out of hundreds of interview transcripts and called it The Laramie Project (running at the Civic's Studio Theater through Feb. 15).


In one of the Project's scenes, at a candlelight vigil after the attack, a Muslim student speaks about the need for Laramie residents not to evade responsibility, not to pretend that such violence is random and generated somewhere "out there." Instead, Laramie "needs to own this crime," she says.


Gays are repugnant and deserve to die, the killers thought. Yet they weren't born thinking that way. They had to be taught. Someone taught them how to hate.


Director Marilyn Langbehn has hit upon a gimmick for convincing Studio Theater playgoers, in visceral fashion, that "we are that kind of people," that we can't just dismiss the haters and killers of gay people as being from "out there" somewhere. They're our neighbors, they're just like us and Langbehn's direction embodies that notion.


For a play that needs a traffic cop for a director -- eight actors, each playing multiple parts, swirling around a cramped, theater-in-the-round playing space -- Langbehn keeps the action fluid with other imaginative touches as well. Four Laramie residents are forced into a shoulder-to-shoulder grouping, as if circling the wagons against an onslaught of reporters hungry for details about the Matthew Shepard murder. Interviews with faculty members slide easily into discussions with students. Press conferences freeze while monologues proceed discursively.


Like good documentarians, the Tectonic writers often let Laramie characters crucify themselves with their own words. The university president, in the aftermath of the murder of one of his school's students, goes on and on about how such a thing has impacted himself and his family -- it has just been unbelievable, how hard it has been for us. A Bible-believing Baptist keeps repeating that, when it comes to judging homosexuals, either the Word is sufficient or it is not. The wife of a highway patrol officer can't quite grasp why the accidental death of a law enforcement official in the line of duty shouldn't receive just as much coverage and sympathy as the death of a gay boy who was just a barfly, who flaunted himself. He probably had AIDS anyway.


For all their research -- six cross-country trips over nearly two years, more than 200 interviews -- the Tectonic gang ends up, however, doing some of the same stereotyping that they clearly feel is demeaning to gays. The media are just devouring locusts; high-prairie ranchers are mis-educated, monosyllabic oafs; conservative Protestants all want gays to burn in sulphurous fire. At the end of Act One, though, a physician, startled by a coincidence, develops sudden compassion for both perp and victim; the Project writers might have made more of his example.


In a strong ensemble, one standout is newcomer Reed McColm, who enlivens an elderly limousine driver, a young bartender and a stern judge all with more than just stereotypes. While his impersonation of a convicted gang-banger is less convincing, McColm differentiates among his characters by waggling his hands, gesturing with his arms, deepening his voice, simulating momentary confusions.


Another actor making his Studio Theater debut, Jeremy Zutter, has the range to portray both of the murderers -- by turns sullen, filled with sadistic glee, whacked out, then suddenly intent on self-preservation -- along with the optimism of Jedediah Schultz, an acting student at the university (and beacon of hope within the play) who gradually overcomes his parents' biases and his own discomfort about homosexuality.


Look for Jon Lutyens to excel in the moments when his characters learn lessons. A hospital administrator and a detective, both dubious about gays, are both eventually horrified by the depth of some people's hatred; a priest, dubious about actors, eventually develops confidence that they will convey their message well.


In a very real sense, the Project's message merely got its start in Laramie. As a certain angelic prophet pronounces midway through Tony Kushner's Angels in America, after much preparation, "The great work begins." To dismantle homophobia, to convince people to reach past tolerance toward acceptance -- the greatest work remains to be done, and we shouldn't be deterred from doing it just because a script contains some dirty words. The Laramie Project is a Spokane project, too.

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