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Theatre in Review: The Crucible (Connelly Theatre)

Photo: Ashley Garrett.

Eighty percent of Bedlam's new production of The Crucible (staged in association with The Nora Theatre Company) is so thunderously good that you're likely to forgive the haywire twenty percent. It might take you a little while, however, to sort things out. The early signs are not promising: Entering the Connelly, one is confronted by a giant road sign, seemingly out of the 1950s, announcing "Welcome to Salem Village." And what is one to make of the cha-cha/lounge music that fills the air? Given the company's habit of playing fast and loose with classics, I began to fear the worst -- perhaps The Crucible, a play firmly rooted in a specific place and time, was being staged at a suburban barbecue or an especially vicious PTA meeting. Later on, during the tense courtroom scene, the actors -- moving at lightning speed -- repeatedly rearrange the furniture, creating a series of pointless interruptions.

The opening is not auspicious: The lights come up on a bedroom in the home of Reverend Samuel Parris, where a covey of anguished adults watch over his daughter, Betty, who has seemingly fallen into a coma. It's a desolate tableau, except for Shirine Babb, as Tituba, the Barbadian servant, who skitters around in rapid baby steps and sweeps the floor in cartoonish fashion -- an idea that is soon dropped, praise the lord. The entire scene -- loaded with exposition revealing that the young girls of Salem, caught dancing at night, are claiming satanic possession -- is declaimed, woodenly and with a minimum of feeling, by the entire company -- many of whom deliver their lines looking directly at the audience. (The one exception is Babb, who doubles as the serenely pious Rebecca Nurse; with a minimum of fuss, she creates the only recognizable character onstage.) Are director Eric Tucker and his company sending up the script? Is this the opening stratagem in a production so revisionist that even Ivo van Hove might blanch? Who can say? The first thirty minutes is rather like the popular image of a nineteenth-century stock company sawing away at a vintage melodrama.

The design does little to clear things up. John McDermott's set consists of mismatched furniture pieces, creating a rehearsal room aesthetic. Charlotte Palmer-Lane's costumes don't indicate a specific time frame, although the men, by and large, look ready to perform Clifford Odets' nineteen thirties labor drama Waiting for Lefty. (If you attend, opt for seats in the middle or back of the house; if you sit down front, you will have Les Dickert's lighting in your eyes much of the time. At the performance I attended, one poor woman spent an entire act holding up a piece of paper to protect her vision.) In any case, everyone seems determined to barrel through the first scene as quickly as possible, believability be damned.

The production takes a sharp turn for the better, however, when the action shifts to the farm of John Proctor and his wife, Elizabeth. The couple lives in a state of armed truce, thanks to John's brief fling with Abigail, their former servant; now, Abigail is the ringleader of the Salem girls, orchestrating the accusations of witchcraft that are causing dozens to be rounded up and jailed. Ryan Quinn and Susannah Millonzi mine their characters' troubled marriage for every bit of tension -- John swears that the affair is over, trying to win his wife over with false heartiness, and Elizabeth, folded into a defensive crouch, responds coldly and monosyllabically. Their mutual rancor explodes in a savage round of finger-pointing when Elizabeth discovers that John, investigating the hysteria at the Parris house, was briefly alone with Abigail: Quinn's fiery rage is matched by Millonzi's dead-eyed stare and flat vocal delivery that stops just short of a sneer. Then their fury turns to fear when the news arrives that Elizabeth is the latest to be accused.

From this point on -- as accusations spread like wildfire, Salem is consumed with suspicion and backbiting, and a monstrous lie takes on a life of its own -- this Crucible works up a terrible momentum, despite an uneven ensemble. Miller pursues the chain of rumor and revenge -- families are fractured and farms abandoned as the community cannibalizes itself -- with such force that it is impossible to look away. This is, in fact, a most apt moment for a revival of a play famously associated with the redbaiting scandals of the McCarthy era. Seen today, it provides the last word on the toxic effects of fake news: Having been gulled by Abigail and her friends, Reverend Parris and Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth, who represent the local authorities, have a vested interest in perpetuating the girls' falsehoods, for fear of losing face and making a hash of the community's foundational religious beliefs.

If Tucker's production is adept at exposing the true (often petty and/or vicious) motivations behind the characters' maneuvers, it is much weaker when dealing with matters of faith; one strongly suspects that neither he nor anyone else onstage knows what to make of characters for whom the Bible is the inerrant word of God, and Satan and the malicious practice of witchcraft are daily realities. Absent the ability to make that imaginative leap, it is impossible to suggest the sheer terror that drives the events of the play; the characters lose a certain dimension, being defined only by malice. The Crucible offers such an urgent warning against the effects of theocracy precisely because the Salemites are so sincere in their beliefs.

The play's clear connection to today's cankered politics may be one reason for the casting of Paul Lazar, who oddly calls to mind Mitch McConnell, as Danforth; it's a solid performance, even if he comes off as a self-protective politician rather than a man of faith. It may also explain Tucker's surface-skimming performance as the Reverend John Hale, whose belief is rattled to the core by the spectacle of good people hanged by the dozens for crimes they didn't commit. (Like Randolph Curtis Rand as the ulterior, easily wounded Reverend Parris, Tucker often seems to be commenting on his character rather than simply playing him.) Also disappointing is Truett Felt as Abigail; perhaps shying away from the #MeToo implications of her relationship with John, a character often portrayed as a vengeance-seeking fury is made oddly neutral, almost tame. This choice throws attention on Mary Warren, Abigail's confederate, who suffers an attack of conscience and pays dearly for it; in Caroline Grogan's acute performance, you'll feel every bit of her agony.

Still, the oddities built into the production are easily forgotten because they are front-loaded to the early scenes and, in any case, they never coalesce into a coherent point of view. Tucker helpfully includes a scene not included in the standard text -- Miller removed it a few years after the original production -- featuring a no-holds-barred confrontation between John and Abigail, which helps to flesh out their relationship and motivations. Here it is intercut with the scene that follows in the General Court of Salem, a strategy that works well. And the original script -- which has its stolid moments and windy bursts of speechmaking -- is so secure in its construction that it resists directorial tampering. In particular, Quinn and Millonzi are positively searing in the final reunion of the imprisoned John and Elizabeth, but, ultimately, the entire company conveys the sense of a town hollowed out by the effects of evil disguised as piety. This isn't the finest production of The Crucible that you are likely to see, but it is a timely one, and in its best moments it is filled with real fire and brimstone. -- David Barbour

(21 November 2019)

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