THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Crucible’ @ClevelandPlayHouse

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Through Sun 11/8

Arthur Miller, the author of The Crucible, which is now in production at the Cleveland Play House’s Outcalt Theatre, was one of the most important modern American playwrights. Credited with being the developer of the contemporary definition of the American tragedy, he would have been 100 this year. Ironically, this is CPH’s 100th birthday as well.

Miller’s plays, such as All My Sons, Death Of A Salesman and View From The Bridge often appear on lists of the finest modern English language scripts, along with Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Eugene O’Neil) and A Streetcar Named Desire (Tennessee Williams.) Miller, noted as a moralist, asked in his writings, “Is this the best way to live?”

In The Crucible, Miller writes of the Salem witch trials in 1692 and 1693, but, in reality he is alluding to the McCarthy-era witch hunt for Communists. Like the Salem times, McCarthyism was based on gossip, innuendo, and fanaticism. The country in the late 1940s was in a frenzy over Communism. In 1947, The House Un-American Activities Committee held hearings into “red” influence in the arts, specifically in Hollywood’s motion picture industry. People called before the committee were often ostracized as the result of the hearings. Among others, those blacklisted were Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and Paul Robeson.

Arthur Miller was subpoenaed to appear before the committee in 1956. Miller asked that he not be required to reveal names. The panel agreed. He revealed his political activities, but then the chair asked him to identify others who had carried out similar actions. The minutes of the hearing state that Miller said, “I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble on him.”

As a result of his stand, Miller was found guilty of contempt of Congress, sentenced to a $500 fine or 30 days in prison, blacklisted and disallowed a U.S. passport. In 1958 his conviction was overturned because Miller had been misled by the chairman of the HUAC.

The strain of his experience brought about changes in his attitudes and work. The first play to reflect this was The Crucible, in which he uses the writing device identified as “historification,” in which the author writes about a historical event to lay the foundational comparison for the modern message of the play. The script illustrates Miller’s expanded concern for the physical and psychological well being of people, especially the working class.

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The Crucible is set in the Puritan New England town of Salem, Massachusetts. A group of teen girls are caught by Reverend Parris, a local minister, dancing in the woods. In order to cover up for their misdeed, Abigail Williams, the group’s ringleader, hatches a cover-up. The girls swear that they were taken over by the devil. The hysteria grows and many lies, rumors and
innuendos fester, resulting in a search for witches and those possessed by the devil, including the local midwife, Rebecca Nurse, Elizabeth Proctor, and her husband, John Proctor, a man who Abigail has had sexual relations with and still desires.

An “expert” on witchcraft, Reverend John Hale, is brought in. At first he believes the girls’ stories, then he recants when the circumstantial evidence is obviously false and results in over a dozen hangings and stonings. Abigail, caught in her lies, steals money and runs away. Hale attempts to plea with the survivors to admit their guilt and save themselves. Many, including John Procter refuse.

Proctor’s concluding speech has become a classic model for standing up for one’s principals. He verbally admits his
sins, but then refuses to sign his name to the document which will be hung on the church’s door. Why? “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” He is taken to the gallows.

In the end, the witch trials, as were the McCarthy hearings many years later, are proven to have been injudicious.

The play is filled with themes including that of intolerance. Dissent in that theocratic society was unlawful. And, as the head of the court states, “a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it.” That sentiment is parallel to McCarthy-era belief that if someone did not cooperate with the “court” they were guilty of being a communist or a communist conspirator.

Hysteria is another theme. Hysteria tears the community apart. Again, much like during the “witch hunts” of the HUAC, by creating fear from the results of being castigated by the committee, the right wing caused hysteria and won control. Other themes include the roles of reputation, empowerment, accusations, confessions and paranoia. The latter can clearly be seen in America in the 1950s, with the excessive zeal and disregard for the rights and reputations of individuals.

The oft-stressed Miller question of “Is this the right way to live?” becomes paramount in understanding why he wrote the play.

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The CPT production, under the direction of Laura Kepley, is mesmerizing. Choosing to do the play in the Outcalt Theatre, with its theater-in-the-round stage, was a stroke of genius. Forcing the audience to be close to the action, with no place to psychologically hide, makes the uncomfortable actions of the court and the hysteria of the characters vivid. Here is yet another reason why abandoning the old building and its three proscenium stages was a wise decision by the Play House board.

Though some may complain that because of the theater-in-the round staging, some lines were lost. This argument pales, in my opinion, when acknowledging the emotional impact on the viewer of the breaking of the emotional third wall and forcing

close-up-and-personal participant in the production.

The cast is universally excellent. It was nice to see a blend of local and national professionals joining together on the CPH stage.

Some of the local performers who clearly developed meaningful major roles include Donald Carrier as Reverend Parris, the paranoid, self-pitying, egotistical church leader who was one of the leaders of the witch-hunt; Dorothy Silver, the first lady of Cleveland theater, as Rebecca Nurse, the wise, sensible, upright woman who was willing to give her life for her reputation; Tracee Patterson, as Ann Putnam, who lost seven children in childbirth and is the main accuser of Rebecca Nurse; Fabio Polanco
as Thomas Putnam, who uses the witchcraft trials to cheaply buy the land of those who have been convicted; and Chuck Richie, as Francis Nurse, the husband of Rebecca Nurse.

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Other cast standouts are Ben Mehl, who creates in Reverend John Hale, a character whose gradual transition from accuser to denier is completely believable. John Herrera is totally convincing as the high minded deputy governor. Rachel Leslie is correctly compassionate as Elizabeth Proctor. Mahira Kakkar is compelling as Mary Warren, who helps reveal the trickery by Abigail and the other girls. Esau Pritchett gives an impressive and finely textured performance as John Proctor.

Kudos to the local school students and members of the CWRU/CPH MFA Acting Program who helped enhance the
production.

Lex Liang’s costume designs, which mixed 1700 with 20th century styles and fabrics, helped create the reality needed for the authenticity of the past but with the spotlight on the near-present. Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting added to the grotesqueness of the happenings Scott Bradley’s multi-sets helped develop clear spaces for what was happening.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: The Crucible is an important American classic which gets a fine production at CPH under the directorship of Laura Kepley. There are important lessons to be gained from seeing this script. It is doubtful that local audiences will get another opportunity to see a better staging. This is a definite must be seen!

The Crucible runs through Sun 11/8 at the Outcalt Theatre in Allen complex of PlayhouseSquare. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.com.

[Written by Roy Berko, member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle]
 
 
 

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