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Hope on the Horizon

"The Laramie Project" revival dives deep into Matthew Shepard’s murder—and starts a dialogue

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Arriving actors are forced to maneuver between paint buckets and under ladders as they filter into the theater for rehearsal. It's the best kind of bedlam. The 5 & Dime is being painted in preparation for its new production, The Laramie Project.

Director Lee Beger welcomes her cast before reluctantly retreating to an adjacent library lounge with the journalist who has just arrived to interview her. It takes her a few moments to switch gears-when she sits down, she's still clearly absorbed in strategy for the rehearsal-but before long, Beger is eager to tell me about The Laramie Project and why she chose to revive it in Jacksonville.

Laramie is Beger's first production at The 5 & Dime and it's a special one for the veteran stage director and recently retired drama teacher. She's been keen to pitch a production to the theater company for some time.

"I've enjoyed many of their productions," says Beger. "I believe they're doing the best theater in town right now. Actors and directors are gravitating here. They know they're going to be well-supported."

The Laramie Project is also a play about which Beger has been passionate for a long time. Created by New York-based playwright Moisés Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project, the award-winning drama was an outraged community's answer to the murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard in 1998.

Beger embraced Laramie from the start. She had even moved mountains to mount a controversial student production years ago, during her tenure as chair of the theater department at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts.

"We had to do a lot of editing," she says. "I had to get special permission and host panel discussions with parents and county officials after every evening performance. It ended up being a very different production. We did what we had to do to reach that very important youth audience. But I always knew that one day I'd return to the original Laramie."

This Jacksonville revival is indeed a return to the source material. While the play's creators have since expanded Laramie into a cycle, complete with a sequel, Beger is interested in only the original text-and she's having her actors perform it word for word.

The poignant script is a synthesis of hundreds of interviews conducted by Kaufman and Tectonic in the immediate wake of Shepard's murder. The theater company travelled to Laramie, Wyoming, where Shepard had been tied to a fence, beaten and left for dead just weeks earlier. They spoke to dozens of residents. Each actor on stage assumes various roles, giving voice to the entire spectrum of public opinion-from the sympathetic to the unrepentant.

Though Beger is faithful to this source material, she is keen to make the presentation entirely her own. Hundreds of adaptations have been staged since The Laramie Project premiered in Denver and New York in 2000. The drama has been interpreted by activists, students and theater professionals around the world; Beger hasn't researched any of them.

"I never do that kind of research," she explains. "I don't want to know how other people did it. That's their point of view. I'm the director and I want to tell the story my way. I'm layering my perspective over that of the text."

Beger reckons both points of view are sorely needed, especially in Jacksonville. It turns out the arc of the moral universe is long-so long that the 20 years since Shepard's murder have registered only incremental changes in the day-to-day experience of homophobia in Northeast Florida.

"Just last month," the director notes, "a Times-Union article found that gay teenagers in Duval County schools are several times more likely to be bullied than their non-gay peers."

LGBTQ activists face an uphill struggle in Northeast Florida, but there is hope on the horizon. Duval County in particular has been trending, albeit ever so modestly, toward tolerance and diversity. While voters in neighboring counties swung right during the presidential election of 2016, Duval came surprisingly close-within a margin of 1.5 percent-to rejecting Donald Trump's ham-fisted performance of conservativism. There is room for civil debate in Jacksonville. Beger wants to be part of it.

"There's no question that we live in a conservative county," she says. "That comes with the territory. But it is a county of many different views, and I want to present this point of view."

When asked if she fears a backlash in the MAGA era, the director scoffs.

"I worry more about the weeds in my garden."

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