Stanwood High play stirs strong emotions

STANWOOD — High school plays are often whimsical, if familiar, productions. Decades after their original productions, old standard numbers about 76 trombones or wind sweeping down the plains are still giving aspiring hams the chance to have some fun on high school stages.

But Stanwood High School’s drama program has tackled a decidedly different play this fall, one that takes an unflinching look at a small, rural town’s reactions to a horrific murder.

"The Laramie Project" uses interviews from dozens of real-life characters from Laramie, Wyo., to reveal the myriad attitudes of that town’s residents in the aftermath of the brutal beating death of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man, in 1998.

Shepard was tied to a fence and beaten by two young men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, who gave him a ride from a local bar. They then left him there in freezing temperatures, where he was found 18 hours later, still barely alive. He later died.

Instead of re-enacting scenes with dialogue and elaborate sets, playwright Moises Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project wrote a script that relies mostly on monologues, with the characters speaking directly to the audience. The stage has only a few wooden chairs and some rough-hewn wooden risers.

Ken Sims, the high school’s drama teacher, said the play’s unusual, sparse production style intrigued him.

"It’s a very objective view," Sims said. "They basically put on stage everything these people say. It’s almost like a newspaper report, and I thought that was a unique way of looking at violence."

The play was not universally well-received in town. Derek Sudweeks, a junior at Stanwood High School, decided against participating as a sign-language interpreter after bringing home a script of the play.

"It probably has a good message and all," Sudweeks said. "I just don’t like how it’s for mature audiences. I try not to go to any R-rated movies and just try to stay away from all that junk."

Sudweeks said the script was an unedited version, which had some profanity. The final script has very little swearing, although some of the characters do use homophobic slurs, as they did in the real interviews with Kaufman’s group.

For Sudweeks and his parents, a high school stage was not the appropriate place for such mature material, he said.

For the actors, though, the play is a very important lesson about hatred — a lesson that could be relevant to any small town. A group of them chatted about the play in the makeup room before Friday’s opening-night performance.

"Laramie reminds me so much of Stanwood," said Adam St. John, who plays five characters, including the hospital CEO who had to deal with the media crush. "We’re 92 percent white, and we’re pretty strict. It’s just funny how people were trying to protest the thing. When you ask people, they say, ‘Oh, it’s about gay people, right?’"

"It’s about real people," Kayli Crosby said.

"Exactly," said Suzanna Hare, nodding her head.

"It’s more focusing on hatred than the gay issue," said Erik Whitney.

The play is important to him, Whitney said, because he is gay.

"I know how this town is toward gays," Whitney said. "It’s hard to feel welcome."

But he also said he has received a lot of support, as has the play, from others in town.

Sims said he was inspired to choose this play after two high school students from Seattle killed a friend in a dispute over a girlfriend and then buried the body on the Tulalip Reservation. He said he agreed with people who feel that murder shouldn’t be a topic for a high school stage. But these awful things are happening, he said, so we should learn a lesson from them if possible.

Reactions from the opening night audience seemed to agree.

"For students to address these topics is a really good growing experience," said Phil Trautman, the father of one of the actors.

Bob Stenberg said the show’s reflection of Laramie reminded him of the South Dakota town he grew up in.

"I’ve never attended (a show) in which the audience was so sober and breathed every word in," Stenberg said.

Standing outside waiting for their rides, a small group of students said they were glad the community did not come to protest the play like some of them feared might happen. And they all agreed they were coming back to see the show again.

"It was so good," Ariel Bertino said.

"It made me cry," Brandy Cooney said.

The play will continue with more performances next weekend. As for the spring play, Sims smiled and said he’ll probably opt for something a bit more traditional and light-hearted, for a change of pace.

Reporter Scott Morris:

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