Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

The Crucible
Invictus Theatre Company
Review by Christine Malcom

Also see Christine's recent review of Aztec Human Sacrifice and Karen's recent reviews of MotherFreakingHood!, Gender Play, or what you Will and Hatefuck

Frank Nall, Orion Silvertree, Jay Donley,
Michaela Voit, Zach Bloomfield, James Turano,
Charlie Diaz, Ellie Duffey, and Mark Pracht

Photo by Through Line Studios
To close its "Rhetoric and Groups" season, Invictus Theatre Company presents Arthur Miller's (dishearteningly) eternally relevant play, The Crucible. Earlier in its season, Invictus pursued the season's themes by setting Julius Caesar explicitly in contemporary America. Here, director Charles Askenaizer places the focus on the company's commitment to deploying the power of heightened language with a straightforward staging that lets Miller's metaphor speak for itself. Although Askenaizer's approach occasionally is too big and forceful for an intimate space and a show in which the cast comes close to outnumbering the audience that space can accommodate, the powerful performances carry the show.

The scenic design by Kevin Rolfs leans into the claustrophobia of the play itself and Askenaizer's vision for the production. Stage left and right are taken up by two-tiered, wood-fronted galleries that suggest both a courtroom and Puritan meetinghouse. At the play's outset, the entire cast directs their stony faces toward the action. By implication, the audience forms a third body surveilling the action playing out in intimate domestic spaces early on and later as the community and uncoils and strikes at itself.

Rolfs uses the upstage wall to add to the sense that the cast and audience alike are irrevocably boxed in by offering the suggestion of a rough structure, using just a few broad planks and a set of shutters. The most interesting element of the set would be the branches that twine up this wall and project into the space of the stage itself. These are visually striking and offer productive confusion between interior and exterior, built environment and wilderness, and the protection and oppression inherent in communities. Unfortunately, there are also times where they interfered with the blocking and movements of some of the taller actors in the more crowded scenes.

The sound design by Petter Wahlbäck and lighting design by Chad Lussier complement Rolfs' set admirably. Lussier's choice to mimic "house lights up" during the crowded court scenes adds to the sense that the audience is complicit in the protracted frenzy. Wahlbäck's piped-in whispering and unnerving thrum is so effective at heightening the dangerous energy of the room that it seems like an opportunity to, perhaps, downsize some of the physical set to afford more freedom of movement to the cast.

Jessie Gowens' costume design adds visual depth to the story by communicating both class position within the Salem community as well as personality. Goody Putnam's sleek, controlled hair and the severe lines of her dress, for example, contrast effectively with Elizabeth Proctor's loose hair and more relaxed clothing. These choices deftly provide visual anchors that help to clarify dynamics that might otherwise become easily confused.

In a cast characterized by outstanding performances, Devon Carson quietly distinguishes herself as a standout in the role of Elizabeth Proctor. In a sea of characters whose emotions climb and climb, Carson is a steely, steady balancing force. It's to her credit and Askenaizer's that her work goes a long way toward conveying ethical, emotional heart of some of the play's ideas that are fairly dated on the surface. In her final scene with John, for example, when she accepts some measure of responsibility for his infidelity, Carson succeeds in backgrounding the tired gender politics and crafting a moment of deep, personal reflection in the most urgent possible person crisis.

Carson's work contributes to the success of Mark Pracht's tortured John Proctor. In their domestic moments early on, the two clearly trust one another enough to allow their characters to shade deep into unlikeable territory. Elizabeth is rigid and withholding, to be sure, and John is childishly outraged that anyone should hold him accountable for his failings. These small moments and the anchoring force of Carson counterbalance and ultimately earn Pracht's more explosive work and are critical to the success of the scene in which John ultimately wields his reputation and privilege for the greater good.

Joseph Beal's performance as Reverend Parris is equally crucial to this, the production's most critical and successful scene. Beal does not shy away from his character's sanctimonious, ambitious nature, yet his concern for his daughter is palpable from early on. His fear, late in the play, reads as equally real, gratingly so in a way that underscores the irreducible complexity of the issues that render the play timeless. Proctor's ultimate choice is not simply, childishly saving "the good" in Salem, it is ultimately preserving its corruptible institutions, because the alternative is untenable.

In this vein, Charlie Diaz is also outstanding as Reverend Hale. He occupies a space where the power of religion, class, gender, and access to knowledge overlap. He embodies the frustrating, yet frustratingly relatable, moderate amidst the chaos and polarization of the rest of the community. When he ultimately explodes in opposition to Deputy Governor Danforth, the shattering of that measured facade is gratifying in the grand scheme of things and heartbreaking on the personal level. These successes are mirrored by Brandon Boler in his quieter, though decidedly not smaller, role as Ezekiel Cheever.

As Danforth, James Turano chews the scenery to great effect. This is the character whose language is polished, perfect, sinister, and fatally effective. Turano commands that language and without ever needing to resort to a wink and a nod communicates to the audience that it is substantively empty, yet the character is so far removed from the rest of humanity that he is long past caring.

Michaela Voit offers a strong performance as Abigail Williams, the center around which the the hysteria revolves. Williams blends maturity and childishness in a way that effectively reminds the audience at all points that however villainous her choices seem (and are), she operates from a position of powerlessness, which appropriately complicates our notions of heroes and villains. In this regard, Ellie Duffey is a capable foil as Mary Warren, and the two performances knit together believably when Mary ultimately rejoins "the fold."

Erin Stewart (Mercy Lewis), Lea Grace (Betty Parris), and Freya Trefonides (Susanna Walcott) add to the strength of these performances. Together, these actors capture the frenzy Askenaizer is interested in, and if that frenzy is sometimes a bit overwhelming for the space, it's clear that the group's collaboration is at the core of what succeeds.

In the supporting role of Giles Corey, Frank Nall shows the greatest ability to capture the play's moments of black humor. Similarly, as Rebecca Nurse, Barbara Roeder is all weariness and practicality. Together, the two remind the audience that there is (or at least has been) warmth and good in the community that is unraveling in such spectacular fashion.

The Crucible runs through June 11, 2023, at Reginald Vaughn Theatre, 1106 W. Thorndale, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit