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Chicago by John Olson

The Crucible
Steppenwolf Theatre Company

The Curcible
James Vincent Meredith and Alana Arenas
Program notes for this production acknowledge the incongruity of the idea that Steppenwolf would mount a production of this play, arguably one of the most popular and accessible pieces of 20th century classic American drama, with the group's reputation for producing original work. For Steppenwolf, writes Artistic Director Martha Lavey, "the well known work becomes the quirky choice." Other than some color-blind casting, particularly that of African-American James Vincent Meredith as John Proctor, there's nothing very quirky about this solid staging of an American classic. That's quite all right by me, as it gives us the chance to see this standard performed by such a uniformly accomplished cast, some of whom will be leaving before the run's end to perform the company's most recent previous effort, August: Osage County, on Broadway for the director of this production, Anna D. Shapiro.

Those who are at all familiar with The Crucible will not have difficulty seeing how Arthur Miller's historical play about the Salem Witch Trials in Colonial America, originally written as a comment on U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy's figurative witch hunts of suspected American communists, can have resonance today. An exhibit in the theater lobby lists a variety of quotes from contemporary sources that have similarities to the line of dialogue in the play in which Deputy Governor Danforth, magistrate for the witch trials, contends "you are either on the side of this court or against it." The surprise is not that the play still resonates, but that so many quotes from prominent figures could be pulled to illustrate the level of groupthink and intimidation that may exist today.

In the hands of Ms. Shapiro, who directs the piece at a fever pitch and with unrelenting audio volume, The Crucible is a truly frightening work. Though rooted in a time and using a style of English of over 300 years past, the characters heroes, villains and those in between - come to life as real people. It's a nightmare portrayal of self-preservation grown into mass hysteria in which a community begins to self-destruct because of its fears. Mr. Meredith is a strong and powerful Proctor, and he brings a contemporary African-American perspective to the role that may or may not have been intended. Sally Murphy is a heartbreakingly vulnerable Elizabeth Proctor. We're led to identify with her more than the other accused women, and accordingly she personalizes the horror and tragedy of their convictions and executions. Mary Seibel, Leonard J. Kraft and Maury Cooper are tough as rocks as the Salem senior citizens accused of the crime. Steppenwolf company member Tim Hopper makes a most welcome return from his film and TV work to play Reverend Hale, whose commitment to the church and the court is eventually shaken as he becomes one of the first to oppose the trials.

Francis Guinan is the chillingly officious magistrate and is responsible in large measure for the success of this production. His believability is critical to the drama's premise, showing how the witch-hunt was only able to rise to the level of panic it achieved through the complete support of the Massachusetts government. Equally important is the performance of Alana Arenas as the Proctors' servant Mary Warren, who totters between taking the easy way out of her troubles with actions to protect her own safety. Ian Barford is despicably duplicitous as Rev. Parris, whose fear and instincts for self-preservation set the course of events in motion; and Alan Wilder brings what little comic relief Miller and Shapiro will grant the piece as the bumbling Ezekiel Cheever.

The production is also notable for the introduction of Kelly O'Sullivan to a high profile Chicago stage. As Abigail Williams, the teenager whose testimony and accusations are at the heart of the cancerous naming of names, she shows every bit of the cunning manipulation that enabled the girl to dupe an entire community into her spell. Ms. O'Sullivan, a recent Northwestern University grad who received acclaim for her lead in the Rebecca Gilman play The Glory of Living two years ago at the edgy storefront Profiles Theatre, shows again that she's one of the rising talents of the Chicago theater community.

Visual design is just what it needs to be, starting with Todd Rosenthal's rough-hewn A-frame that serves as a backdrop for the play's settings in two homes and the courthouse of Salem. Virgil Johnson's costumes seem authentically Puritan-drab, and the production is lit in various shades of shadows by Broadway's Donald Holder.

Guinan, Murphy and Barford will leave the cast in mid-October to attend to August: Osage County in New York. They'll be replaced by Austin Pendleton, Rebecca Spence and Philip R. Smith on October 14.

The Crucible will play through November 11, 2007, in the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago. Performances are Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3:00 p.m., and Wednesday matinees on October 24, 31 and November 11, 2007 at 2:00 p.m. Tickets available online at www.steppenwolf.org and at the box office.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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