Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

A Fire and Brimstone Production of
Arthur Miller's The Crucible

Also see Richard's reviews of Our Town, Owners and Rain

Janna Sobel and Robert Parnell
San Francisco Playhouse opens its third season with Arthur Miller's timeless classic The Crucible, running through October 22nd. The 1953 original was a box office success, with all of the critics giving it positive reviews (although Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times said "The theme does not develop with the simple eloquence of Death of a Salesman). It was undoubtedly written in response to Senator McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee's crusade against alleged communist sympathizers. Most believe that the character of Deputy Governor Danforth is a literal characterization of the senator from Wisconsin. The drama is a self-contained play about a terrible period in American history. The Crucible is as relavent today as it was when the events took place in Salem, Massachusetts in the 1692 the period of the play.

This marks the fourth time I have seen this classic, starting with the original at the Martin Beck in 1953 with a superb cast of Arthur Kennedy, Walter Hampdon, Beatrice Straight and E.G. Marshall. The last time was the remarkable revival by Tony Randall at the Belasco with Martin Sheen, Martha Scott and Michael York. The Crucible is loosely built on the events of the infamous Salem witch trials. It is an allegorical fable about the spineless betrayals, false accusations and snap judgments of the McCarthy era. It is a powerful drama, especially the second act which takes place mostly in a court presided over by Governor Danforth.

The Crucible centers around John Proctor (Kevin Karrick), an honorable farmer whose life is destroyed by the forces of hysteria sordidly dressed up as uprightness. The play strongly suggests the dangers of falling in line behind leaders who believe in convenient accepted beliefs more than complex truths. The current Playhouse production helmed by Bill English presents a strong cast with a lot of fire and brimstone in them. They seem to become over melodramatic in several of the scenes.

Arthur Miller's drama starts with four young girls running down the aisle of the theatre to the stage to do their witch's dance around a caldron. Just like teenagers of today, the girls just want to have a good time and get away from their religiously strict parents. Unfortunately, the Reverend Parris (Tony Panighetti), who is more interested in getting gold candlesticks for the parish church than preaching charity and love, comes upon the girls. "All hell" breaks loose and the evil reverend thinks the devil has come to Salem. The reverend has an agenda of his that own causes great consternation for the community, and the witch hunt is on. Before it is over, one half of Salem is either in jail or has been executed for having consorted with the devil and his minions.

Kevin Karrick (Five Flights here and in New York) gives a thoughtful performance as John Proctor. The last scene, in which Proctor signs and then renounces his decision, is very moving. Susi Damilano (Kimberley Akimbo, Our Town) gives a beautiful performance as Elizabeth Proctor, a woman controlling her emotions through the drama. Erica Smith (performed in musicals in New York and starred at Loews Hotel Cabaret in Monte Carlo) gives a searing impression as Tituba. Lauren English (many productions at Playhouse) once again gives a sterling performance as the sneaky, self possessed Abigail Williams. Her bouts with the "devil" would shame Linda Blair in The Exorcists .

Robert Parnell (many roles in regional theatre) is extraordinary as Governor Danforth. He plays the role as a blatantly sycophantic hypocrite who spouts high-minded statements about morality. When an accuser is asked for legal council, he says "The pure in heart need no lawyer." Tony Panighetti plays Reverend Parris as a man bordering on hysteria. Janna Sobel (California Shakespeare Festival), as the shallow Proctor's servant Mary Warren, gives a touching performance.

Director Bill English has put together a great large cast and has presented a fast-moving production of Arthur Miller's play. English also designed the set, which is basically an open-end staging with few props. There is a lattice of wooden slats that change occasionally and in several scenes a portion of the rough-looking slats become a cross. Lighting by Jon Retsky is top grade and Marjorie Moore has provided us with authentic looking Puritan costumes.

The Crucible plays through October 22 at the SF Playhouse, 536 Sutter St. San Francisco. For tickets please call 415-677-9596 or visit

Photo: Zabrina Tipton

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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