The Crucible - Heavy Handed Drama
By Bob and Karen Isaacs
Arthur Miller's 1953 play The Crucible which did not receive uniformly positive reviews when it opened, has since become a staple for high school students. And one can understand why. It deals with fear, false accusations, injustice, pressure from authorities to conform, and the reluctance of governmental authority to admit mistakes, all set in the remote 17th century. Those themes are enough to appeal to teenagers' ability to see the errors of adults and are yet removed from the modern world.
In the current production now at Hartford Stage, director Gordon Edelstein, who is artistic director at Long Wharf Theater, tries his best to remedy the distance by using costumes that are not typical Colonial period ones, thus implying the play is set in a more modern period. But one is not sure why or how it impacts the work. And it is done with such subtlety that some audience members may not even realized the switch.
The Crucible is too heavy-handed and obvious in its intention, to parallel the era in which it was written, now known as the McCarthy Era, a time of witch hunting and mass hysteria.
To illustrate this moment Miller takes us back to the Salem Witch Trials of the 17th century and concocts a quasi-history. The idea has merit but the fact is that the development of the play fails to go beyond the propaganda value and create a genuine world. The problem for us is Miller allows his audience to remain just that - an audience removed from the action and feeling superior to it and the characters. Instead of seeing how each of us could be caught up in an analogous situation and questioning how we would behave, the audience feels superior to most of the characters as they comply, delude themselves, and lie to save their skins.
Basically what you have is a story about several young Puritan women who are caught dancing in the woods; one of whom claims she has been bewitched and another is feigning catatonia. Under prodding from religious authorities they begin accusing others of having a pact with Satan. From this, accusations fly hither and yon and more and more people are drawn into the morass as both victims and perpetrators. There are also those who see this as an opportunity to gain land, money, prestige or relationships.
Under the masterful direction of Edelstein the play opens with a dramatic dance by several of the young women on a catwalk above the stage that presumably illustrates the madness of their romp in the woods. Of course dancing and such wild actions are taboo in the Puritan world in which they live so the very fact of the dance - that no one denies - is clearly in opposition to the "good life" supposedly being lived by the people of Salem.
Caught in the grip of the hysteria are, among others, the Reverend Samuel Parris, his daughter, Betty, and his niece, Abigail Williams as well as a number of other teenage girls. Parris is the relatively new pastor whose style (some call him priggish and money-loving) has alienated a good portion of the community. Pretty soon the entire community is convince that Satan has ambassadors in Salem and residents are out-doing themselves in efforts to expose the witches resulting in punishments being meted out, many of them leading to death.
Tom Beckett as Parris lacks the necessary force in the role and as someone mentioned during intermission he reminds him of Pee Wee Herman. It isn't just his dithering that creates the image but his general demeanor and action. This is not true of David Barlow who plays the Reverend Hale whose investigative actions seem genuine. Hale – the expert from out of town – also gets caught up in the hysteria.
Abigail Williams played by Rachel Mewbron is appropriately developed as a jealous and self-absorbed young woman who thinks she finds a way of undermining the marriage of John and Elizabeth Proctor to gain the affections of John, with whom she believes she had a brief adulterous romance.
John, presented by Michael Lawrence, is one of the best performances on the stage as he clearly battles futilely and fatally against the rising tide of mindless persecution. Miller too obviously sets up John Proctor to be the hero - the one person who will not give in to the madness nor sacrifice others to save himself.
Mass hysteria, false accusations, greed, hypocrisy and government reluctance to admit to and correct mistakes are still with us. We have the powerful cases of those condemned to death who are found to be innocent, and of accusations of rape and child sexual abuse that have been found to be false. Yet the problem with The Crucible as a play is that it does not force the audience to question how it would respond in such an atmosphere. Would we be John Proctor? Or would we try to protect ourselves? Instead we just sit there and observe; we do not identify.
Despite these reservations there are many positive aspects to the production not the least of which is the direction by Edelstein who moves the action along, juxtaposes the characters in just the right way and effectively stages the action.
The Crucible is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford, through Oct. 5. For tickets and information call the box office at 860-527-5151.
This review appears in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers Sept. 21, 2011 and online at Zip06.com.