An Expansive “Crucible” at Hartford Stage

By Tom Nissley

The long awaited production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” opened this week at Hartford Stage - it will play there through Thursday, October 6. The production is bigger than life in its staging, but provides a lot of punch. Director Gordon Edelstein and scenic designer Eugene Lee found space above the light frames for the young girls to be dancing and sporting in the forest, an activity frowned upon in Puritan Salem, and also utilized the theatre’s underground access to transform the main stage into an upstairs 17th century bed chamber: the townspeople visiting climbed up from below for their entrances.

“The Crucible,” written against the background of the Communist witch-hunt in the United States during the 1950’s, begins with a revelation to the audience that Betty (Lilli Jacobs), the daughter of Rev. Samuel Parris (Tom Beckett) and his niece, Abigail (Rachel Mewbron), have been dancing in a nearby glen with other girls from the town. At least one was naked. There’s a hint of sexuality in this. The Rev. Mr. Parris found them there, and [mincingly - Beckett did a wonderful caricature of a sop of a minister] excoriated them. The audience also knows that Abigail was the ring leader, and hears her swear the girls to secrecy, but the townspeople do not, and Mr. Parris calls a neighboring pastor, Rev. Hale (David Barlow) to help investigate the phenomenon that has seized Betty and several other girls in town: a combination of paralysis and hallucinations that might be the result of some witch’ or witches’ curse.

As the play develops, it turns out that everyone is suspect of a compact with the devil. The two pastors who began the investigation call in the state judiciary and the deputy governor to expand it, and the most honored and upstanding members of the community are jailed and hanged. Meanwhile the girls who cooked up the story become a sort of grand jury, that seeks out suspicious behavior and discovers how completely bewitched the community has become. Gov. Danforth (Sam Tsoutsouvas) stakes his reputation on the pure justice that he and Judge Hathorne (Curtis Billings) administer. Like all good prosecutors they ignore the evidence that is counter to their goal, and pursue the elements of evil until they find it in every household.

Miller’s play, as presented when it was new, was clear enough to let the seventeenth century story impact a twentieth century audience. Mr. Edelstein doesn’t want us to miss the possible application of the tale in today’s world, so the costumes in the second act blend from then until now, and above the church a motto hangs that says “You’re with us or with the terrorists.” I think it detracted from the power of the play to be so blatant with set and costumes. The wisdom and bravery of Giles Corey (Ron Crawford) defending his wife, and Elizabeth Proctor (Kate Forbes) defending her husband, of John Proctor, magnificently played by Michael Laurence, struggling with his humanity and clinging to his integrity, but also wanting to cling to his life, and the fine spirit of Rebecca Nurse (Annette Hunt), who reminds him that he may save his life but lose his name – his soul, in the process, taken together provide heroes that fit into our lives without markers.

I am still musing on what on earth the costumes allotted to the girls during the trials might have represented (nurses? postulants? a sect?). And I am experiencing over and over the very powerful performances and the impact of the story, well told. Go, by all means, to see this grand revival. Tickets and Information are available at www.hartfordstage.org.

Tom Nissley, for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre.

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