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F.C.’s Providence Players Tackle ‘Laramie Project’ Opening April 2

PP-Laraw-ThronFor Tina Thronson, the director of the Falls Church-based Providence Players’ latest production opening April 2, Laramie, Wyoming is not only the setting of the troupe’s latest production: it was once her home, and the characters, her neighbors.

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Director Tina Thronson (second from left) works a scene with (left to right) Robbie Snow, Thronson, Beth Whitehead and Falls Church resident Christian Faulkner. (Photo: Chip Gertzog/Providence Players)

For Tina Thronson, the director of the Falls Church-based Providence Players’ latest production opening April 2, Laramie, Wyoming is not only the setting of the troupe’s latest production: it was once her home, and the characters, her neighbors.

“It’s a very intimate play for me, having lived in Laramie until a year before Matthew Shepard’s death in 1998,” said Thronson, who is directing the Player’s winter production, the controversial docu-drama “The Laramie Project.”

“The Laramie Project” was written by the Tectonic Theater Company, a team of New York writers who interviewed the people of Laramie, Wyoming, a city of 30,000, in the wake of the murder of Shepard, a young gay college student.

Thronson said she has wanted to stage “The Laramie Project,” her second play as director, with the Providence Players for some time.

She lived in Laramie with her then-husband, an astronomer at the University of Wyoming, for 16 years, working as a nurse at a local hospital.

“I worked with the townspeople in the hospital when I lived in Laramie, and incidentally, my two children were born in the two hospitals mentioned in the play: my son in Laramie, and my daughter in Colorado,” Thronson said.

She explained that “the townspeople could be victims of poor media coverage, or they could be portrayed as the bad guys in a backwoods town. Following the trial, the townspeople felt condemned by the media. I wanted to be fair to them in our treatment of the play.”

In the play, 60 characters, including actors portraying the Tectonic Theater Company in Laramie, portray the principals involved in the investigation following Shepard’s murder by Russell Arthur Henderson and Aaron James McKinney, two locals who in October 1998 picked Shepard up at a bar, robbed him and proceeded to tie him to a remote fence post and severely beat him. Shepard was discovered by a passerby days after and pronounced dead at the hospital a week later.

The murder was a catalyst for hate crime legislation that culminated in last October’s Matthew Shepard Act, which labeled crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation a hate crime according to federal law.

The premiere of “The Laramie Project” depended on the eight original Tectonic Theater members to play all 60 roles in a New York City production in 2000. In 2002, HBO broadcast a made-for-TV film based on the play.

For Thronson’s purposes, she has assembled 25 area locals to bring life to the 60 voices that shape the story of a town’s tragic tale.

“We had such a response from actors who wanted a part in the play,” Thronson said. “We have a big range, from amateurs to seasoned actors who have performed with the Players for many years. The scope of this play allowed us to invite younger actors to participate, too.”

 

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The cast of the Providence Players on stage in a scene from The Laramie Project. (Photo: Chip Gertzog/Providence Players)

One actor, Jacinta Williams, who lives in Prince William County, joined the cast because of the Providence Players’ reputation, and her personal connection to the play’s story, she said.

“I remembered how I felt when Matthew Shepard was killed, and when I was looking to audition and came across ‘The Laramie Project,’ I thought to myself, wow, this happened in my lifetime,” Williams said.

Like many of her fellow actors, Williams portrays multiple roles, including Romaine Patterson, one of Shepard’s closest friends in Laramie.

Her other role, as Shannon, who Williams described as an “air head,” required her to channel comedic energy in a very serious play. “It’s a lot more difficult to play someone funny here, because your character is making light of something that’s actually very serious.”

Williams is joined by two Falls Church actors, Christian Faulkner and Robbie Snow.

Faulkner first appeared on stage as a detective in the Providence Players production of “Rehearsal for Murder” last year.

Faulkner plays four roles, including a gay Episcopalian priest and as two of the Tectonic players – one of them being Moises Kaufman, one of the principal writers who led the team of New Yorkers to Laramie.

“It’s a challenge to render each of these characters in a unique light,” Faulkner said.

Thronson’s rendition of “The Laramie Project” has all of the 25 actors filling the stage throughout the production, and actors playing multiple parts must distinguish their characters with minimal costume changes.

“Oftentimes you’re working with very simple costume changes like a prop to find your character,” said Snow, who has worked with the Players since 2003.

U.S. Congressman and former Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chair Gerry Connolly also appears in “The Laramie Project,” as the judge who presided over the murder trial.

“Gerry’s been involved in a number of our productions for years,” Thronson said. “When he heard we were staging ‘The Laramie Project,’ he immediately asked if he could have a role. It’s a very personal commitment for him.”

A major concern for the cast and crew of “The Laramie Project” was ensuring an inclusive approach to the subject of hate crimes and anti-gay bigotry.

“This play is essentially theme-driven, not character-based,” said Barbara Gertzog, who plays the narrator. “We were careful to stage the play as something that engages the audience to think about the crime, and to keep away from preaching.”

Thronson said her objective approach was to present the situation plainly. “If you’re straight and cannot access what it must be like to be gay, when people brutalize others in this way, we can see that it is still a crime,” she said.

“The Laramie Project” premieres 7:30 p.m. next Friday, April 2, at the James Lee Community Center (2855 Annandale Road, Falls Church).

The play is scheduled for April 3, 8 – 10 and 16 – 17, at 7:30 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, April 11.

More information on The Providence Players is available online at www.providenceplayers.org.

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(Photos: Chip Gertzog/Providence Players)

 

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