After six performances of ‘The Laramie Project’ across a 10-day period there was no traditional curtain call for the public to affirm its approval following Sunday’s matinee performance at the Dietrich.
Instead, the actors and audience got something better.
They had an opportunity to engage one another in a discussion about the play which portrays a town out West in crisis and whether that, in fact, could just as easily have been somewhere in northeast Pennsylvania or, more pointedly, Tunkhannock.
Co-director Jennifer Jenkins – who is executive director of the Dietrich Theater- said that the explicit directions shared early on about entering Laramie by going past a WalMart and railroad tracks into a town with old buildings is “By God what we see coming into Tunkhannock from Wilkes-Barre.”
But what they don’t see, but certainly feel as the play unfolds is a range of emotions which crosses the gamut from breaking your heart to outrage to acceptance and makes one question his or her own issues of prejudice, intolerance and small-town life.
Actor Chris Bednar, who played the character of Aaron McKinney who in real life got two life terms in the murder of Matthew Shepard, which the play is centered on, said that five or six years ago in real life he also used to hold many of the same bigoted attitudes of his character, but has come full circle.
“I’m ashamed I used to even think like that,” he said.
Co-director Jane Honchell, who also serves as theater director at Keystone College, said that one of the reasons she is glad the play was done, is because she sees so many of the characters in the community about her embodied in the roles – both good and bad - and hoped people could relate to that.
Local actor Dave Swanson who played six different roles in the Laramie Project, including a Bible-thumping Baptist preacher, said he struggled with personally disagreeing with some of the traits of that character, but not wanting to portray him in a mocking way so people could see the dynamics of strong-held beliefs by certain members of the community.
“You didn’t mock at all,” audience member Hildy Morgan told Swanson. “You were right on the money.”
She also talked about the undercurrent of violence implicit in the stage play and the levels of bullying that go on in all communities.
“We’ve certainly come a long way, but also have a long way to go,” she said. “Sometimes violence starts with indifference, and you need to plant the seeds of tolerance. But we must also realize that we can never get to the point where everyone changes.”
Veteran actor Bob Hughes, who also had six roles in the play including one of the late controversial Rev. Fred Phelps who went around preaching anti-gay extremism, said after the play, “Even Pope Francis goes around saying today, ‘Who am I to judge?’”
Actress Alexsandra Pomeroy who had four roles in the play including a keen observer named Romaine, noted that a core value of the play was that it was helping encourage each other “to do the right thing.”
Misericordia University professors Marnie Hiester and James Calderone helped facilitate the after-play discussion.
“One thing about drama, is that everyone has a place at the table,” Calderone said. “And you each have done it so well. Thanks for including us not just in Matthew’s story, but in your story as well.”
The 19 actors were kept busy throughout the nearly two hour production which called on more than 70 characters who in some cases just minutes apart held diametrically opposite views.
“It couldn’t have been easy,” an audience member mused.
“But we all did it so well, didn’t we?” Hughes observed while gesturing his arms in a sweeping way to include all of the actors on the stage. “It was quite the smorgasboard of talent here. Where else do you get such a feast as this but in community theater.”
He said it would be his wish that high schools would take on the play so impressionable teens also could have a much-needed conversation opened.
The other actors in the play that was performed April 4-6 at Keystone and April 11-13 at the Dietrich included Andrew Coyle, Mariel Consagra, Kassidy Evans, Owen Frazier, Micole Gumpper, Joshua Harris, Derek Heppding, Jackie Nat, Racine Nimmo, Brink Powell, Suzanne Robinson, Cathy Rist Strauch, John Vicich, Mary Van Vliet and Brenda Wenner.