This production was onstage January 13-15, 2023.

So . . . the great thing about being in the audience for a staged reading is you can concentrate on the words as written, sometimes finding nuances that aren’t so obvious when you’re watching a full-on production. In a way, the simplicity brings you closer to the playwright’s intentions than when the words are filtered through some elaborate theatrical machinations of a director. That isn’t to say that a staged reading is better . . . it’s simply another way of appreciating a work of art that is worth viewing and revisiting from time to time.

Case in point: By the Sea Production’s staged reading (for one weekend only) of the riveting classic The Crucible. Director Chrys Barnes has opted to embellish the actors’ reading of Arthur Miller’s script with quite a bit of stage business (blocking, props, costumes, lighting, sound), perhaps because of the elongated preparation time allowed the production—it was originally scheduled for 2020, then 2021, then 2022, finally escaping the pandemic’s clutches this year. But Barnes has wisely let the words on the page remain the focus, and the devil, as they say, is in those details.

Delivering the details falls to the members of a large cast of 17, some of whom play multiple parts, and some of whom feel confident enough in performance to embrace the full emotion of the hysteria, paranoia, and hypocrisy of the 1692 Salem witch trials (which Arthur Miller used as a metaphor for the “witch hunts” for communists in America in the 1950s).

Mike Miller and Laurelle Barnett-Kelty wholly embrace their roles as John and Elizabeth Proctor, two sane but flawed people who are caught up in the hysteria, and we feel their anguish in their delivery of the play’s intense language—their interactions are the most clearly explored and defined in the production. Miller gives John’s notable line “Oh, Elizabeth, your justice would freeze beer” a quiet dignity but no less heartache, and Barnett-Kelty’s potent closing lines of the play express the simple strength of this production.

Likewise, there is power and energy in the supporting cast, notably Larry Barnes as a commanding Deputy Governor Danforth, Toni Young as a duplicitous Mary Warren, Russell Snow as a steadfast Giles Corey, and Randall Lyon as a bewildered Francis Nurse. Chrys Barnes as the Rev. Samuel Parris and Lisa Pekarek as the Rev. John Hale provide believable but contrasting characterizations of authority in their quest for understanding of the “unnatural” goings-on in Salem.

With so many players, the small stage in St. Peter’s by the Sea Episcopal Church Hall in Morro Bay can get a bit crowded as evidenced in the powerful courtroom scene that opens Act Two of the two-and-a-half-hour production. But it’s workable, even when Abigail (played by Deirdre Loy) stirs up confusion and hysteria among the group of girls who initiated the witch hunt with the help of Tituba (a creditable Jeff Walters).

Andilynne Perkins, Rhonda Crowfoot, Maggie Hall, Phil Epstein, Jean Miller, Gee Strohl, and John Geever ably round out the cast of this long-planned production. Kudos to By the Sea Productions for its perseverance in bringing such a well-prepared staged reading of The Crucible to life for Central Coast audiences.

:: Charlotte Alexander