This production was scheduled June 13-15, 2024.

CongregationHouse Productions in San Luis Obispo presents a reader’s theatre production of one of the most frequently performed plays in America this weekend only, June 13-15.

It is fitting that The Laramie Project, “a breathtaking collage that explores the depths to which humanity can sink and the heights of compassion of which we are capable,” is being presented on Father’s Day weekend. Part of the play’s strength is the empathy and forgiveness that Matthew Shepard’s parents show when, near the end of the two-act production his father (played by a wrenchingly fervid Jeffrey Bruenning) grants one of his son’s murderers a reprieve from the death penalty.

It’s a haunting reminder that the bond between parents and children is precious, and that celebrating the love between fathers and their sons and daughters can include theatres as well as ballparks and campgrounds.

Admittedly, CongregationHouse (“where friends and music gather”) isn’t the fanciest venue on the Central Coast. This cast of nine (one a narrator, the others playing some 70 characters) is seated in the bare-bones black-curtained stage area, standing when called upon to deliver their lines. Part of the audience enjoyment of reader’s theatre is its emphasis on listening to the words without the distraction of intricate blocking, costuming, or set changes, and in this case director Jeannie Bruenning lets her talented actors run with a wide range of vocal expressions designed to distinguish among so many characters.

There isn’t a weak link in this chain as the performers become vocalists in a chorus that playwright Moisés Kaufman orchestrated to tell the story of the real people of Laramie, Wyoming, who in 1988 lived at the epicenter of one of the nation’s most heinous anti-gay hate crimes. If you are not familiar with the details surrounding Shepard’s death, this production provides a clear and compelling roadmap.

Because the play is based on interviews with real people, most often the actors do not interact directly with each other. But when they do, such as when Diane Lewis and Delilah Curtis play mother and daughter responding to questions from an interviewer, it’s a delight. Colleen Baird, Jeffrey Bruenning, Max Chase, Richard Glodo, Abe Lincoln, Stephen Sisk-Provencio, and Jason Sisk-Provencio (as the narrator) round out a cast that does a mighty justice to the material.

There are many reasons to experience this production: hearing the sounds of so many voices (light and confused, guttural and smoky, outraged and penitent), seeing lights as stars hung along the night sky of black curtains (inspired by his father’s words that in his last days of life, Matthew wasn’t alone), watching the actors’ faces as they move their bodies in sync with their lines (the cadence in Chase’s iteration of “dimes and quarters, dime and quarters,” or Lincoln’s passionate “I didn’t understand the magnitude of people’s hate”).

The Laramie Project at CongregationHouse is humanity on display, with few distractions and plenty of heart.

:: Charlotte Alexander