Regional Reviews: Boston
Strange times indeed. There's a timeless quality to Arthur Miller's The Crucible, his fearsome 1953 condemnation of McCarthyism riling up the country with accusations of communism. No matter the political climate, I expect we could find something relevant in this incendiary drama. Still, you'd be hard-pressed to watch Miller's retelling of the 1692 Salem witch trials and not shiver at its uncanny echoes of America 2019. We see men in poweryes, it's men who ultimately deliver the death sentenceswho convince themselves that they are right, no matter how spurious their accusations or self-serving their motives. A community taken advantage of, its rulers armed with blatant falsehoods that they pretend are facts. The fear of the other, the "powers of the dark" that Reverend Hale evokes, invading our way of life.
The Nora Theatre Company's riveting take on The Crucible, presented in association with Bedlam and directed by Bedlam's Eric Tucker, shakes off the play's cobwebs and strips the text down to its muscle and sinew. Because this work has been spoonfed to us as a "Great American Play," it's thrilling to be reminded how powerful The Crucible can be in a great production. At the Nora, it's a gripping examination of our darker natures, and a plea for the sanctity of truth. Miller's writing is didactic but also human, as we see in the emotional honesty of John and Elizabeth Proctor's complicated but loving bond with each other.
Like other Bedlam productions I've seen, Tucker's direction is immediate and urgent, propelling us through the dense text to Miller's wrenching conclusion. Despite the period-inflected dialogue, the actors don't try out accents or speech formalities. The audience is seated in and around a narrow playing area that's been refashioned to resemble a run-down gymnasium (with an initial surprise in store). Lighting effects are often handheld; costumes (modern with a hint of 17th century) are relatively unfussy.
All together, the thirteen-member cast make a strong ensemble, led by three affecting performances. Ryan Quinn's John Proctor is a voice of reason and of clarity, but he is also a conflicted man, whose temper gets the best of him, who falls easily into flirtation with Abigail Williams. By play's end, the once-reserved Proctor becomes a man of righteous fire, coming into his own morally and spiritually. In Susannah Millonzi's effectively cool-headed Elizabeth, by contrast, we sense a well of inner turmoil that remains unspoken. And Truett Felt's Abigail, the accusers' ringleader, is clearly young and in over her head. When given the chance to repent, she doubles down on her falsehood and seems to savor her unexpected new power.
I should also highlight Caroline Grogan's Mary Warren, deliciously bratty; Dayenne CB Walters' crafty essaying of three distinct characters (Tituba, Rebecca Nurse and her husband Francis); and Randolph Curtis Rand's comically oblivious Reverend Parris, who goes along with witchcraft fever out of a need to preserve his own reputation. The one unusual acting choice is Reverend Hale, played by Tucker (on double duty as director and actor) as a man so bland and analytical he's terrifying. His Hale has the boyish affect of a youth pastor in his button-down and khakisobserving this community from a cool distance. It's an interesting characterization that highlights the banality of evil, but I don't think it suits the second half of the play, once Hale becomes increasingly disillusioned by his own actions.
The Nora-Bedlam production is interesting structurally; it's like several different plays presented side by side. The first act is heightened and stylized, a claustrophobic nightmare in which the entire cast, who hover around the main performers until their turn to speak, is quickly swept up in Abigail's mounting cries of witchcraft. It's the most unorthodox and inventive act of the nightgood old spooky fun. John and Elizabeth Proctor's scenes together are much more austere, all the artifice taken away. Yet this disjointed approach pays off in the end. The horror and humor of the frenzied townsfolk make John Proctor's fate that much more tragic.
It's a Crucible that succeeds at disarming us. The absurdity is pitched so high at first that we don't know whether to laugh or scream. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
Nora Theatre Company's The Crucible runs through October 13, 2019, at Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge MA. Tickets can be purchased at centralsquaretheater.org, by phone at (617) 576-9278 ext 1, or at the box office.