Lyric Arts Main Street Stage lifts the curtain on “The Laramie Project” with 11 performances next month.
Running Sept. 6-22, Laramie tells the story of murdered gay college student Matthew Shepard through a documentary-style script. The play explores the depths to which humanity can sink and the heights of compassion to which it can soar.
The nationally esteemed production opens a new season and a new, artistically challenging era for the Anoka theater, said managing artistic director Laura Tahja Johnson.
“This new era will see us, as a company, begin to hold ourselves to much higher standards and expectations in terms of artistic quality,” Tahja Johnson said
But she offered assurance that “this will still be the same Lyric Arts that listens to, and is responsive to, the community we serve.”
“When we made the decision to produce ‘The Laramie Project’ this year, the biggest question we had to ask ourselves was, ‘Why? Why now? Why in this community?’” Tahja Johnson said.
“What happened in Laramie could happen in anywhere in the country, including right here in our own back yard.”
It’s impossible not to draw parallels between Laramie and Anoka, according to Tahja Johnson.
The pictures of the candlelight vigils held around the world during Matthew Shepard’s hospitalization don’t differ much from the pictures of vigils held in Anoka a year and a half ago, Tahja Johnson said.
“You can’t help but draw some parallels,” she said, referring to the community’s response to the bullying and suicides of local gay students and the resulting lawsuit filed against (and ultimately settled) with Anoka-Hennepin School District. That lawsuit included allegations of gender and sexual orientation-related harassment.
“As I read the script while we were working on season selection, I was struck by how the play is as much about the town of Laramie in the aftermath of a tragedy as it was about the tragedy itself. It is about how a community and people of every possible viewpoint finds closure and healing in the wake of terrible events,” Tahja Johnson said.
“The Laramie Project” is an overwhelmingly uplifting production, she said.
“There are moments of sadness, but there are also moments of humor and moments of incredible joy,” Tahja Johnson said.
“This play comes from a place of community. It invites audience members to see themselves in the characters they see on stage and draw their own conclusions.”
Robert Neu directs “The Laramie Project” and while this is Neu’s first time directing the play, he is excited about the challenges the show presents, said Tahja Johnson.
An eclectic mix of newcomers and Lyric Arts regulars are in the cast, making “The Laramie Project” truly an ensemble show, featuring 10 actors playing more than 60 roles.
Cast members with local roots include Evan Wilburg, who grew up in Anoka, and Emily Picardi, who grew up in Andover.
In the past few years, Lyric Arts has been through a period of amazing growth, Tahja Johnson said.
“This new era will see us, as a company, begin to hold ourselves to much higher standards and expectations in terms of artistic quality,” she said.
“We will continue offer a wide range of productions with the hope of offering something for everyone…We just want to do that much better at the things we have been doing so well for the last 18 years.”
Sue Austreng is at