Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
First produced on Broadway in 1952 during an election year and in the heat of the Joseph McCarthy hearings that targeted suspected communists in America, The Crucible (then as well as now) serves as a metaphor for fear as a force in politics. The play was performed in PlayMakers' premiere season, so it is fitting that they revisit it for this, their fortieth anniversary. The current production, under the direction of Desdemona Chiang, provides a fresh look at this harrowing drama that explores the hysteria that emerges when people's fears overtake their minds.
The play opens with the Reverend Parris, a fervent Jim Moscater, seated beside his bedridden daughter, Betty, played with amazing control by Gabriella Cila, who shifts from complete lifelessness to sudden convulsions and writhing agony. Betty's mysterious affliction might be the result of natural causes, or perhaps not. As the new minister in town, Reverend Parris is fearful that the suspicion of witchcraft under his roof will be especially damaging to him in the eyes of the community. The night before, he witnessed Betty, his niece Abigail Williams, and other young girls dancing in the woods, some of them naked. Abigail has instigated this ritual conjuring of spirits. Ms. Altman, who calls to mind actress Sarah Paulson, brings Abigail to vivid life, inspiring both sympathy and terror. The deep-seated fear of witchcraft in this Puritan community will need only this spark to engulf the lives of everyone it touches.
Abigail has just been fired from her servant's position by Elizabeth Proctor, a sincere Sarita Ocón, making her PlayMaker's debut. Goody Proctor suspects her husband John of indiscretions with Abigail, so she forces her out. The moral compass, and indeed our proxy in the play, is found in the being of John Proctor, rendered heartbreakingly by Ariel Shafir, also making his debut with PlayMakers. As Proctor faces these accusations, we find ourselves struggling along with him and pinning our hopes for his acquittal on another teenager, Mary Warren, played by Christine Mirzayan.
Desdemona Chiang has done a stellar job as director, creating a harrowing piece of theatre out of this American masterwork. Additional seating in this already intimate space puts the production completely in the round, adding to the impression that we might be at a town hall meeting. Josh Epstein's lighting design heightens every mood.
Narelle Sisson continues to astound with her scenic design. The set morphs seamlessly from home to courtroom to prison. There is a stark contrast between the first act, shown with historical fidelity, and the second act, for which a new set descends from the rafters with modern décor and fluorescent lighting. Grier Coleman's costumes make a similar jump from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first; when the accused appear in modern orange jumpsuits and handcuffs, there is no question that The Crucible is relevant today. I wouldn't have minded if the entire production had been set in the current time.
Artistic director Vivienne Benesch writes of her hope that this production can "illuminate for us, individually and as a community, the dangers of remaining silent and the risks involved in pursuing a principled citizenry." Arthur Miller's play does a masterful job of merging religion, politics, and mass hysteria, and it is as relevant today as it was during the fifties. Describing Senator McCarthy, Miller said, "just about anything that flew out his mouth, no matter how outrageously and obviously idiotic, could be made to land in an audience and stir people's terrors." One cannot help but hear the echoes of that sentiment in the current election cycle.
The Crucible is presented by PlayMakers Repertory Company at the Paul Green Theatre at UNC's Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill, through November 6, 2016. Tickets start at $15 and can be purchased online at www.PlayMakersrep.org or by phone at 919-962-7529. (Tickets for the section of seats located in the area behind the stage are not available online and can only be purchased by calling the box office.)
Playwright: Arthur Miller