The Laramie Project begins as various members of the Laramie community praise the town of Laramie, Wyoming, speaking glowingly about town’s close-knit community and expounding on its natural beauty. After the residents of Laramie introduce their town, members of Tectonic Theater Project describe how the theater company’s leader, Moisés Kaufman, asked them to join him in Laramie, Wyoming to research a play about the murder of Matthew Shepard, an openly gay university student in Laramie. Some theater company members were initially hesitant, worrying both about their own safety and the ethics of representing a real community on stage. After some thought and convincing, though, they did eventually agree to participate.
In Laramie, the company meets first with Rebecca Hilliker, the head of the theater department at the University of Wyoming. Rebecca connects them with people to interview, and the company uses fragments from these interviews (conducted with many people connected to Matthew Shepard) to give the audience a sense of who Matthew was according to the people who knew and loved him. Characters like Romaine Patterson describe Matthew’s “mega-watt” smile, while limousine driver Doc O’Connor talks about Matthew’s straight-forwardness regarding his sexuality.
The company also uses these interviews to establish the town’s general attitudes towards LGBT people at the time of Matthew’s murder. Often, these interview fragments contradict one another, forcing the reader to dwell in the residents’ subjective memories and opinions, and question what is and isn’t true. Some members of the community are extremely accepting of LGBT people (especially those who are LGBT themselves or are closely connected with the LGBT community). Meanwhile, many straight residents believe that Wyoming’s philosophy of “live and let live” is sufficiently tolerant of LGBT people, despite the fact that it forces them people to keep their identities to themselves. Many residents, especially residents who practice more conservative religions, express varying degrees of discomfort at the idea of homosexuality, with some admitting to open dislike or disgust.
Through interviews with people working at the Fireside bar, the playwrights begin to reveal what happened on the night of Matthew’s murder. They suggest that Matthew, who had been drinking a Heineken alone at the bar, met Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson and left with them around eleven-thirty at night. Aaron Kreifels, the university student who found Matthew the next morning, recalls his shock at seeing Matthew badly beaten and tied to a fence, where Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson had left him to die. Officer Reggie Fluty responded to Aaron Kreifels’ 911 call, stabilizing Matthew and putting him in an ambulance. During this process, Reggie was exposed to significant amounts of Matthew’s blood. In the emergency room, Matthew began treatment, during which it became clear that he had suffered brain damage and needed life support.
The company then interviews Matthew’s friends about their reactions to the shocking news of Matthew’s attack, including Matthew’s friend Romaine Patterson and Matthew’s academic advisor Jon Peacock, who recall their disbelief, horror, and grief. Following their arrest, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson were quickly arraigned. With several hundred people in the audience, Aaron and Russell were charged with murder. As news of their arrest spread, newspapers from all over the country sent reporters to Laramie, who overwhelmed the community with their questions and judgments. Matthew, meanwhile, remained in critical condition.
Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson both decided to plead not guilty, making investigator Rob Debree determined to work hard to ensure they would not walk free after their trials. Meanwhile, first responder Reggie Fluty learned that Matthew was HIV positive, and, due to her contact with his blood during the emergency response, she was at risk for contracting HIV as well. In interviews, Reggie discusses her aggressive treatment plan and remarks on her anxiety about the possibility of having contracted the disease.
Meanwhile, communities throughout the country held vigils for Matthew, including one organized in Laramie by Catholic Priest Father Roger Schmit. Interviews with members of the Laramie community at this time reveal that many people are struggling to reconcile their personal and religious objections to homosexuality with their horror at Matthew’s murder. Some residents, who are unable to understand or accept the role that homophobia played in Matthew’s attack, feel that the media is using Matthew’s murder to extort unfair special privileges for LGBT people. Friends of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson express their shock, sadness, or frustration at their crimes. Meanwhile, gay, lesbian, and bisexual Laramie residents fear for their safety while walking alone or showing affection for their partners in public.
Members of the theater company also speak with numerous religious leaders in the community during this time and attend their church services. These leaders include: the Unitarian minister, Stephen Mead Johnson, who feels it is his purpose to help the community become more open and accepting after the murder; Father Roger, the Catholic priest who organized Matthew’s vigil; Doug Laws, the Mormon minister who condemns homosexuality; and the Baptist Minister, who suggests Matthew’s attack may have been punishment for his gay “lifestyle.” Together, these different religious beliefs represent the range of viewpoints the residents of Laramie express in reaction to Matthew’s murder.
After a long struggle for his life, Matthew dies in the intensive care unit surrounded by his family. Rulon Stacey, a devout Mormon and the hospital’s CEO, cries on national television as he announces Matthew’s death. Arrangements for Matthew’s funeral are made, and, on a snowy day in late fall, the attendees fill two churches and an entire nearby park. Although Reverend Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church attempts to protest the funeral, his rant is drowned out by a chorus of counter protestors singing “Amazing Grace.”
Six months later, Fred Phelps also protests Russell Henderson’s trial, and Romaine Patterson, a close friend of Matthew’s who was inspired by the “Amazing Grace” singers, stages a counter protest. Romaine and the other protestors wear angel wing costumes and encircle Phelps to block him from sight. Inside the courthouse, the jury selection for the trial takes place, and jurors are asked if they would be willing to give Russell the death penalty, since his crimes qualify him for capital punishment. However, before the trial takes place, Russell Henderson changes his plea to guilty, and so he receives two life sentences instead of the death penalty. Just after Russell’s trial, Reggie Fluty receives the happy news that she tested negative for HIV.
Next, the play presents Aaron’s trial. Before the trial, many characters debate their feelings on the death penalty, since Aaron, who did not plead guilty in exchange for a plea deal like Russell, is eligible to be put to death. Some characters are ideologically opposed to the death penalty, believing that violence is never an appropriate response to violence. Other Laramie residents believe that, in order for justice to be obtained, Aaron must be put to death. As the trial begins, the play enacts the dialogue from Aaron’s taped confession to Rob Debree. In the confession, Aaron admits to beating Matthew to death and leaving him tied to a fence to die because Matthew hit on him.
The jurors convict Aaron of murder. Aaron’s defense team then approaches the Shepard family to ask for life imprisonment for Aaron rather than capital punishment. The prosecution decides to honor the family’s wishes regarding whether to ask for the death penalty, leaving the decision up to Matthew’s parents, Dennis and Judy. Matthew’s father Dennis Shepard makes an emotional statement about his son in which he describes his love for Matthew and his belief that Matthew was with God when he died. Dennis then tells the public that, although he and his family believe in the death penalty and although he thinks that Aaron deserves to die, Dennis and Judy decide to show mercy on Aaron and grant him his life in Matthew’s memory. Dennis instructs Aaron to think of Matthew often and be grateful that he is alive because of him.
With the trials at last over, Laramie residents reflect on how the murder has changed both their community and their personal outlook. Jedadiah notes that he has become much more open to gay people since the murder, and will be playing a gay character in a university production of Angels in America. Many characters feel similarly changed. Some characters, however, like Jonas Slonaker, feel frustrated by what they see as a lack of progress. In the end, the theater company leaves with many emotional goodbyes and backwards glances and goes home to New York to produce their play.