David C. Johnston’s production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” begins in darkness, as names are whispered, in a rhythmic, taunting fashion. As the lights slowly come up and sparse music sets the scene, we see six young women partaking in a dance. The nature of what they’re doing becomes clearer as the dance progresses, as the choreography suggests a synergy and ritualistic manner to their cavorting. In this extraordinary opening (which isn’t in my dusty edition of Miller’s play), the audience is given a look at the sensual, uninhibited acts of young women that will lead to their social demise, public trials and possible deaths. What they’re doing is sinister, hypnotic and puzzling…but is it witchcraft?
This collaborative production between Seabury Hall Performing Arts and MAPA thrusts you into Miller’s world of despair and unease. The set (designed by Todd Van Amburgh) is stylishly attired with branches and rope dangling from the rafters. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the Salem Witch Trials will recognize the union of tree branches and nooses, a clear symbol of religious violence in this country. We meet John Proctor (played by Zander Medrano) after he has ended an affair with the wily Abigail Williams (played by Camille Erdman). Proctor lives with his wife, Elizabeth (played by Eliza Wright) in Salem, Massachusetts of 1692. When Abigail is accused of being a ringleader of the girls dancing in the woods, she gains control of her dilemma by accusing others of witchcraft. When Elizabeth becomes a victim of rumor mongering, John must defend her and risks everything to keep them both from hanging.
The performances and line readings are fittingly contemporary. Medrano’s performance as John is somehow both stylish and raw, as he makes Proctor a relatable, sympathetic figure but shows us the dying heart of a broken man. Wright is so natural, believable and endearing as Elizabeth, I never caught her acting. Her character is the heart of the play and Wright provides a core human center amidst the madness swirling around Elizabeth. Even if you know how the play ends, Wright’s final moment with Medrano is still tremendously moving. Erdman gives a fierce performance as Abigail Williams and suggests a balance between the character’s carnal drive and survivalist instincts.
Van Amburgh plays Deputy-Governor Danforth with the tremendous force and presence the role requires. More importantly, Van Amburgh made me constantly question his character’s intelligence and capacity for empathy, which is harder than it sounds. Kalan Birnie gives a strong performance as Reverend Parris and Marley Mehring is positively riveting as Mary Warren. Tia Hill makes a striking Tituba and I enjoyed Carver Glomb’s portrait of Reverend Hale’s increasingly desperate situation. It’s a pleasure to see so many great performers on stage at the same time. In addition to the fine work of Seabury Hall students, there’s also Vinnie Linares, Ricky Jones, Aaron Romano-Meade and Larry Goodknight, all great at seasoning the drama with colorful supporting turns.
Cleverly, the costumes by Andre Morrisette and Vanessa Cerrito are unobtrusively modern, an update that makes the drama feel more immediate. By distancing itself visually from the pilgrim-garb of prior adaptations, this “Crucible” distinguishes itself, in appearance and theme, as a sadly all-too-timely reflection of the world we currently live in.
Yes, Miller wrote the play about McCarthy-ism and as a necessary middle finger to the practice of “blacklisting.” I used to cover the black list in my college film courses and read a long list of artists whose careers were either halted or destroyed because of the “red scare” hearings. Now, the notion of men and women damning one another with name calling, thoughtless character assassination, rumors and spewing lies accepted as facts, religious affiliation used as a means to control and intimidate…I mean, does any of this sound familiar? “The Crucible” has rarely seemed less than a “period piece” than it does right now.
Johnston’s imaginative staging makes the play immersive and confrontational. I sat fairly close to the stage and, considering how dread-inducing the play is, I wish I hadn’t. I’d prefer to keep a safe distance from the suffering, escalating madness and desperation of the characters but the staging prohibits my distance. That’s the point, of course, as Johnston effectively blocks the action to accommodate an in-the-round presentation. It makes every seat a good one, though I managed to get a seat where Abigail Williams stared right at me, which gave me the creepers. The production evokes so strongly a Kafka-esque atmosphere of paranoia, distrust and mania, I was in genuine suspense when Proctor is forced to recite the Ten Commandments as proof of his faith.
A key scene is a meeting in the woods between Williams and Proctor; the lighting (designed by Amy Lord and Todd Van Amburgh) creates the illusion of shadows from trees and vines, intertwined with the performers. The visual is an effective reminder of how the woods (and certainly the woods of Salem) can be a setting of unforgiving, animalistic and most base behavior. Proctor’s struggles, to not give in to self destructive desires and declare the truth at the risk of losing everything, is a universal one. Miller reminds us that it’s easy to lose one’s reasoning to fear mongering and mounting anger. John and Elizabeth Proctor suffer for being reasonable, intelligent and compassionate in an atmosphere that values none of those things. Miller’s play isn’t lighthearted, to say the least, but this top notch production looks straight into our collective heart of darkness and reminds us to overcome the hold that fear has on us.
The Crucible is showing February 24th-March 5th at Seabury Hall. Tickets are available at the box office and by going to firstname.lastname@example.org.