Featured Story

‘The Laramie Project,’ a play centered on tolerance and love, set to debut at North Fork Community Theatre

On Dec. 1, 2020, Cutchogue resident Huck Hirsch decided to honor Matthew Shepard, a young gay man from Wyoming who was killed in 1998. Mr. Shepard would have turned 44 that day.

To honor him, Mr. Hirsch led a Zoom reading of “The Laramie Project” during a meeting of the play-reading group Actors Coming Together Online Reading Scripts.

The play readings, which started during the pandemic, were originally just for members of ACTORS, but for this play, the group invited the community to listen in for the first time. They also held a forum after the play during which audience and cast members could share their thoughts. When Mr. Hirsch saw the community’s reaction to the reading, he knew he had to bring it to the stage.

“The conversation that followed was just staggeringly impactful to me,” Mr. Hirsch said. “I did not say much, I just watched people share how the material moves them and what I got out of that whole thing was, ‘I’m going to pitch this play to North Fork Community Theatre,’ because as much as I love the material, I really underestimated how impactful this material is. I underestimated how much this material speaks to people across a broad spectrum of issues.”

Mr. Hirsch is now directing NFCT’s production of “The Laramie Project.” It will be presented Fridays through Sundays, Feb. 25 to March 13, at the Mattituck theater.

“The Laramie Project,” written by Moises Kaufman, was made in response to the brutal murder of Mr. Shepard in Laramie, Wyo. in 1998.

A student at the University of Wyoming, Mr. Shepard was beaten and tortured by Aaron McKinney and Russel Henderson on Oct. 6, 1998, and afterward was tied to a fence and left there. He died six days later from his injures. He was 21.

The play is based on real life events that occurred in 1998 in Wyoming. (Credit: Melissa Azofeifa)

As people speculated on the role his sexuality played in the motivation for his murder, the incident caused the country to reflect on hate crimes in general and on violence toward members of the LGBTQ community.

Only a few weeks after this tragedy, members from the Tectonic Theater Project in New York traveled to Wyoming and interviewed residents to get their take on the murder and its effect on the community. Those interviews became source material for “The Laramie Project.”

“This play touches on tolerance and love and community and wrestling with unconscionable things that happen in the world in general,” Mr. Hirsch said. “The play covers so much ground through its specific example. It really is a universal play.”

The NFCT cast for “The Laramie Project” features 15 actors who all portray various real-life characters during the play, which has about 80 characters in total, according to Mr. Hirsch.

Nicholas Auletti, who plays three different parts, said he hopes it causes community members to reflect within themselves.

“That’s the beauty of community and theater,” Mr. Auletti said. “It’s we get to civilly discuss these things … I want people to know that this show is about community, and they should reflect upon themselves within these characters and ruminate within themselves to say, ‘are we really like that?’ I mean, really, really like that, you know.”

Stu Whelan, an actor in the play and a member of the theater’s board, said he remembers the tragedy when it happened, but hadn’t heard of the play until Mr. Hirsch suggested bringing it to the stage. He hopes the North Fork comes out to support it.

“I hope we get a good audience; I hope the North Fork is ready and enthusiastic about it,” he said.

Admission is $20. Showtimes are at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. on Sundays. Talk-backs with the cast and crew will take place after the show on Feb. 27, March 6 and March 11. A talk-back on March 13 has been reserved for Riverhead High School students. Tickets are available at nfct.com/the-laramie-project or call 631-298-6328.

More information on “The Laramie Project” can be found at matthewshepard.org, the website for the foundation established in Mr. Shepard’s memory.