American Crime: ‘Laramie Project’ powerfully resonates at Wright State

In commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death, Wright State University presents a powerful, intimate production of “The Laramie Project” through Feb. 26 in the Herbst Theatre of the Creative Arts Center.

This riveting drama, which will stand the test of time akin to the quaint Americana of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” or Anna Deavere Smith’s culturally conscious “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” is derived from interviews conducted by Moises Kaufman and The Tectonic Theatre Project in the aftermath of the 1998 murder of Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student. At the brutal hand of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, Shepard spent 18 hours tied to a fence on the outskirts of Laramie. Through the viewpoints of the Laramie community, a compelling portrait takes shape of a small town coming to grips with a hate crime that shocked the nation.

Under the excellently fluid and varied direction of Josh Aaron McCabe and the expert dialect coaching of Deborah Thomas, an impressively versatile cast of eight actors portray dozens of roles. Ni-Ni Denker, a dignified Moises Kaufman at the outset, brings gentle sensitivity to Dennis Shepard and gay resident Harry Woods but is also adept conveying the cool, laidback persona of McKinney’s anonymous friend and the frank homophobia of rancher Murdock Cooper. The outstanding Matthew Shanahan, making great use of the Herbst space as guided by McCabe, captivates and connects as colorful limousine driver Doc O’Connor, concerned bartender Matt Galloway and the fiery Reverend Fred Phelps. Danny Dobbins absolutely charms as inquisitive theater student Jedadiah Schultz yet is fittingly brooding as Andrew Gomez, a prisoner who shares reflections of McKinney. Zavi Odetta terrifically embodies the frustrations of Muslim student Zubaida Ula, the fear within gay University of Wyoming faculty member Catherine Connally, and the emotional complexity of Dr. Cantway, the emergency room doctor who simultaneously treated Shepard and McKinney. Julia Hoff delights as Romaine Patterson, Matthew’s close friend, and brings heartfelt urgency to her portrayal of Aaron Kreifels, who found Matthew tied to the fence while on a bike ride. Spencer Lucas Hall is firmly grounded in such authoritative roles as Father Roger Schmit and the Mormon Teacher. Sydney Freihofer brings wonderfully earthy familiarity to Reggie Fluty, the policewoman who was the first to arrive on the scene and treat Matthew. The vibrant Elaine Mueller is equally earthy in her primary role as Marge Murray, Reggie’s mother.



The creative team includes scenic designer Natalie Jobe, costumer Emma Green, lighting designer Alex Markley, sound designer James Dunlap, stage manager Dylan Serrano, and properties designer John Lavarnway.

In press notes, McCabe, head of acting in WSU’s School of Fine and Performing Arts, described the relevance of this experience.

“We did a read through of the play, and just to hear the voices of cast members as I just saw them shaking, reading it in tears; not just because it’s a powerful piece, but because this is their fears realized,” he said. “The thing about great theater is that you do see yourself on some level in some of the characters. And it’s not always fun. It isn’t always right. The play has a new kind of urgency because people are realizing this is happening in their own backyard. There does seem to be more of a desire for people, especially young people, to be honest. So, as a result, it makes those who are uncomfortable with it more vocal. As one of the characters in play says, there’s different kinds of violence. There’s the violence that happened to Matthew Shepard; the most brutal violent act. And then there’s the violence of language. And his point is that that’s violence too, when people drop words that are offensive to people that that’s also a kind of violence.”



The production is supported by several University and Dayton-area organizations including Wright State University’s LGBTQA Center, The Rubi Girls and Muse Machine. Muse Machine teachers will attend a special performance that is followed by a discussion with a current member of The Tectonic Theatre Project, and Wright State’s LGBTQA Center is supporting that event, as well as an upcoming symposium later this term. As part of the School of Fine and Performing Arts examination of artist responses to this hate crime, Wright State’s Choral Music Program is presenting “Considering Matthew Shepard” by Craig Hella Johnson on Sunday, March 26 in Wright State’s Schuster Hall.

“Matthew Shepard’s murder is an incredible tragedy that is pivotal to the modern-day LGBTQ+ movement,” noted Emily Yantis-Houser, associate director of the WSU LGBTQA Center. “Not soon after the insurmountable loss felt by the AIDS epidemic, it marked a new surge of political activism for LGBTQ+ rights and humanity. It is especially pivotal for young people and college students as Matthew was a 22-year-old gay college student who was just out for a night of fun with his friends. It is imperative for the Wright State community, particularly our LGBTQ+ community, that we reignite the memory of Matthew Shepard by sparking dialogue and activism, which is why the LGBTQA Center is proud to sponsor this production of ‘The Laramie Project’ on our campus.”


What: “The Laramie Project”

Where: The downstairs Herbst Theatre of Wright State University’s Creative Arts Center, 3640 Col. Glenn Hwy., Fairborn

When: Through Feb. 26: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday

Cost: $5-$15

More info: Call 937-775-2500 or visit

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