American Madness


“We lived in a vast landscape. We mistook [its] size for the size of our souls.” The line is from John Guare’s reworked version of Lydie Breeze, but it could be the epigraph to The Laramie Project. Guare’s fictional 19th-century commune on Nantucket, living and dying off tainted money and poisoned ideals, is only a hairsbreadth away from the dazed, griefstruck small city, trying to puzzle its way out of its now blood-smeared complacency. The quasi-hero of Guare’s epic kills his best friend. Matthew Shepard, the martyr of Laramie, was killed by men nearly as young and unformed as himself. From duneside to mountainside, from sea to shiningly polluted, oil-slick sea, something is severely wrong with America, and always has been. The land, the water, the sky, those seemingly open invitations to humility and generosity, have instead provoked centuries of slaughter, bigotry, and greed.

The five-hour saga that John Guare has been struggling to put into final form for so many years revolves around a woman and three men in a house they call Aipotu—utopia spelled backward. Superficially, it couldn’t be more different from Laramie, a ranchers’ and herders’ town tucked away in mountainous, landlocked vistas. Yet Laramie’s people subscribe to the same credo as Aipotu’s drifters and dreamers, the freedom to “live and let live.” Like all generalities, the phrase conceals more than it reveals. A local homophile, one of the many Laramie residents interviewed by Moisés Kaufman’s company for The Laramie Project, supplies a translation: “It means if I don’t tell you I’m gay, then you won’t beat me up.” Even spelled backward, that’s nobody’s definition of utopia.

Kaufman’s cast members, some of whom were also among his fellow interviewers (most of the others are credited as “dramaturgs”), fan out across the stage, playing not only friends of Shepard’s and people intimately connected to the case, but neighbors, onlookers, authority figures, and anonymous voices. They play themselves, too: Strangers who go to Laramie and ask discomfiting questions inevitably become part of the story. Strangers, in a sense, are its key: “My secret hope,” one Laramie resident says of Shepard’s killers, “was that they would turn out to be from somewhere else.” Few playwrights have cut to the heart of tragedy so unerringly. The myth that automatically attributes criminality to strangers is the one that causes hate crimes—in which, in point of fact, the stranger is more often the victim, while the perpetrator is someone “everybody” knows. Matthew Shepard, part of the university’s transient student population, was a comparative stranger to Laramie; his killers were locals. The townspeople who speak to and through Kaufman’s company are at first understandably resentful that the world media should view their town as a swamp of prejudices, but there turns out to be a great deal that “everybody” in Laramie doesn’t know about the neighbors. In this respect, it isn’t a plague spot, only an average collection of human beings.

The characteristically American fault that keeps the bigotry burning underneath isn’t some special school for inculcating hatred, but the denial that hatred exists, the desire to pretend that everything’s okay as long as there’s no overt violence. In Kaufman’a astute selection of material, the two most offensive presences are non-Laramieans. One is “Reverend” Fred Phelps, busily spreading hate even at Shepard’s funeral—where his message was topped by the local initiative of silent “angels.” The other arrived by e-mail at the desk of Rulon Stacey, CEO of the hospital where Shepard died: Having broken down in tears on TV while giving this news to the world, he found, among the condolences, the message, “Do you only cry for your fag patients?” Clearly, you don’t need to live in Laramie to be crazy.

Guare’s characters are also great ones for denial: Independent-minded Lydie Breeze, a nurse in the Civil War, picks out three wounded veterans to be her communal husbands, failing to see that they come for her and the main chance, not for any Whitman-esque dream of love or socialism. Daydreaming Joshua wants to write the great book on humanity’s future; hedonistic Dan shows up with a son by a previous wife and a satchel full of ill-gotten cash; drudging, semiliterate Amos longs for education and success. Ideals, peaceful and beautiful, fly through their dialogue; underneath lurk hatred, selfishness, murder, madness, blackmail, disease, and death, along with maltreated immigrants, abused children, and irrecoverable damage to nature. It’s an American story.

Painful in substance, Lydie Breeze is largely comic in treatment. Guare loves history the way Laramie loves its tradition of tolerance, but playfully; everything has a story attached, and the stories can distract you with their dazzle. At the same time, he loves to twist events and their consequences into puckish Miró-esque shapes. The difficulty with earlier versions was that the innumerable disparate elements made you keep losing the thread. This time around, the work is tight, clarified, sequential—and with enough data flooding through it to make any of Guare’s fellow bookmeisters beam with pleasure at his fidelity to historical fact, even when his events or characters are at their most outrageous. The work has the dense feel of an almanac: While you watch American dreams go wrong, you can learn about bird-banding, or typesetting, or how to cook soft-shell crabs.

But, of course, the one thing you can’t learn is why Americans, as a nation, resist reality, spread out before them on such a huge and splendid scale. It can’t be religion, or a carryover from Europe; both Guare’s people and Laramie’s are very far from the latter, while the former, as seen in The Laramie Project, is just a set of discordant and perplexed voices like everyone else’s. In Guare’s play, the philosopher is the murderer: “We used to dream here,” he tells his victim’s son, long after the crime, “but we never trusted our dreams. We only trust the itch in the pocket.”

But Guare’s characters are shown spanning decades. Aaron James McKinney, whose entire human encounter with Matthew Shepard lasted barely a third of the time it takes to perform Guare’s play, only said, “He tried to put his hand on my dick.” Here, too, decades of experience were adduced (later, by his defense lawyers): childhood sexual abuse, poverty, drink, drugs. They go largely unmentioned in The Laramie Project because they have nothing to do with Matthew Shepard; a hate crime is an abstract entity. The victim has been selected because he fits a pattern and is there, not because he is a specific person; his personhood is the thing being killed.

Insane by their own internal logic as well as by ours, such acts retain the mystery of gestures mechanically performed in a void. What Shepard’s murderers did was far in excess of any assignable cause. Put in the nationwide context of Columbine and dragging deaths, serial killings, and gay bashings, it suggests an America so far removed from sanity that even a writer of Guare’s extravagance would have trouble encompassing it.

Not that he hasn’t come close: Lydie Breeze lays out the 19th century with its parallels to the 20th in plain view. The little corruptions that add up, as big corporate crimes, to poison the land and oppress the poor, are the spine of his grimly funny parable. On Neil Patel’s broad, windswept set, Itamar Kubovy stages it with strong focus, occasionally pushing the harshness too hard. Going through a full day with the actors, you come to cherish the characters as loony, compulsively talkative friends: Bill Camp’s dryly hapless Joshua; Boris McIver’s Amos, a gawky stammerer gaining stature and polish; Alexandra Oliver, vividly coarse and funny as Lydie’s elder daughter; Elizabeth Marvel, gliding invisibly from tart to seductive to embittered as Lydie herself. Two unexpected prizes are Jefferson Mays, cunningly using 1890s actor-tactics to evoke an actor of the period, and Joanna P. Adler, whose gift for big, raw emotions is starting to be matched by one for sheer transformation, as into this play’s Irish nursemaid.

Not all the acting in The Laramie Project is so cogent, though Greg Pierotti, Amanda Gronich, and Stephen Belber do consistently sharp work. But here it’s more important to evoke than to incarnate: The company’s success is that you feel the presence onstage of a whole town full of people—abetted by Kaufman’s discreet, fluid staging, a great improvement over Gross Indecency. The residents of Laramie seem like a group you might find in any town, a fact that is itself a victory over prejudice; they speak with dignity. But in a town of thirty thousand, it only takes two to spoil the dignified effect. It will be very hard to love Laramie—to love America—until we understand why it creates so many versions of Aaron James McKinney and Russell Arthur Henderson. “In all our dreaming,” says Guare’s Joshua, “we never allowed for the squalid, petty Furies . . . I want to look our petty Furies in the face, and name them, and lose them.” If that is how you lose Furies, I hope someone names them quickly.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 23, 2000

Archive Highlights