Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Arthur Miller's classic was inspired by the Congressional anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s (orchestrated by Donald Trump's mentor Roy Cohn) that destroyed lives of Washington diplomats and Hollywood entertainers. In fact, the play's first short act ends with a literal "naming of names," putting us right into the 1692 witch hunts in Salem, Massachusetts. The breathless, edge-of-your seat tension, which is in full force in this new production at Stray Dog Theatre, earned Miller the Tony Award for Best Play in 1953. But don't be surprised if, sixty-six years later, it also works as an allegory for Artificial Intelligence gone horribly awry.
Artistic Director Gary F. Bell directs here with outstanding clarity and a consistent level of emotional authenticity. And though the show still clocks in at three hours and twenty minutes, we get frequent breaks to stand up and stretch, and marvel at the anguish and torment attending the quest for human righteousness. Like food and water, these 17th century Puritans also live and breathe their own dignity and good names. Until, that is, more and more of them are declared to be witches or wizards; and the impossibility of knowing the interior of another's soul destroys them all.
There is subtle calculation onstage, but Miller's grown-ups are all spontaneouseven as their options narrow down to life or death. The Crucible is a struggle between personal codes and public creeds, though it's far from preachy. The only impassioned "religious" demonstrations are by the calculating teenaged girls in the story, led by elusive, intriguing Alison Linderer as Abigail Williams. It's her dangerously ecstatic visions that you have to watch out for.
These are the girls who stand in silence in the background, observing and easily forgotten, like pre-Revolutionary versions of Alexa or Siri, waiting to attend to your every need, though here it's all cleaning and light farm work and tending to children. They stand and wait, until they realize they can have more, as when Abigail develops a love for one of the farmers, John Proctor (excellent Graham Emmons), who faces the ultimate decision at the end. The problem is, he's married to Elizabeth, played by the equally talented Cynthia Pohlson, and soon she will become one of about 400 women (and some men) the teenagers accuse of sorcery.
Like that laptop web-browser history you forgot to clear last week, the patterns of behavior, the secrets and shortcomings of the Proctors and the others are easily accessed by their "servants" to take over their world. Under Mr. Bell's direction, visions and spirit-sightings become a means for seizing control, at the community's weakest point. Accusations of witchcraft astonish them, and the girls' zealous demonstrations become an irresistible call to action for those single-mindedly seeking virtue. Blinkered, narrow-focused, and unwise to the ways of deceit, the pious adults' own behaviors become the root of their demise.
In the real world, your behaviors, like bill paying or switching jobs, or divorce, or bar tabs, or anything that can be entered into a computer, can all be quickly added to a profile, or credit score (or, in China, a "social score") and matched to common human behaviors, to predict what will happen when you apply for a job or a home loan, for example. Currently, there is no publicly known example of a software-based "singularity" responding with its own self-generated new behaviors, to change human behavior itself, as we see here. But that's what suddenly makes this Crucible a dystopian vision of the future.
The need for solidarity is crucial for these characters who live under the extremely basic conditions of colonial life, where everything depends on the weather, or on their goodness and adherence to the social stability of the Bible's ten commandments, all of which they hope will ward off "evil spirits." But as one good person after another is ruined by the servants' denunciation; even the preachers and judges are pressed to the limits of reason. As the elders, even they are possessed in Miller's maddening play, by the idea of demonic possession.
The Crucible's men of the cloth are nicely played by Ben Ritchie, Joe Hanrahan, and especially by Abraham Shaw, as the visiting expert. Each has a desperate journey over increasingly rough moral terrain. Kelli Wright shows an even greater emotional pitch and yaw, but is remarkably true in every moment as Tituba, the anguished adult servant from Barbados. And there's excellent work, as always, from Suzanne Greenwald (playing the no-nonsense midwife) and Laura Kyro as Ann Putnam, with admirably authentic performances by Gerry Love and Charles Heuvelman.
Stray Dog Theatre's The Crucible, through February 23, 2019, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave., St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.straydogtheatre.org.
Cast (in order of appearance):