At the heart of Brian Bauman's new play A Crucible are two interlocking stories of young people at a high school in a small town in New England. Randy, a senior who is a favorite of Father John, who teaches drama at Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, is in a coma in a hospital, following a cruel beating that everyone knows but no one officially will admit is a gay bashing. And five girls at the school—Happy, Rhonda, Ashley, Toni, and Jobina—make a pact to become pregnant (which is based on a true event that occurred in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 2008). The absence of responsible adults to protect or lead these kids is heart-breaking, though uncommented upon in the play; the world Bauman reflects back at us here feels tragically misspent and true.
But this is far from all that's on the minds of Bauman and his collaborators, who include director Kate Gagnon, video artists Madeleine Gallagher and Adam Savje, and a team of talented designers and actors. A Crucible takes its name from Arthur Miller's famous play, and it is Bauman's intriguing conceit that the girls who make the pregnancy pact are also actors in a high school production of The Crucible.
Though some of the ideas of Miller's play find their way into Bauman's script, the main argument in the piece seems to be between conventional theater styles and more contemporary non-traditional ones. Bauman is steeped in the vocabularies and notions of what we still call experimental drama, and he invokes in his script diverse practitioners of the avant-garde from Brecht to Richard Schechner, from The Living Theatre to The Wooster Group. I was struck, for example, by the stark contrast between scenes in which the play's five young heroines (cast as "witches" in the Miller play-within-the-play and so billed in the program) address us directly in epic theater style about what's going on in the script, and others where Father John coaches the girls in Stanislavski's "Method." Is it oxymoron or irony?
Such collisions between presentational modes happen throughout the show, and as lines from The Misfits or Marilyn Monroe famously singing "Happy Birthday" get grafted onto the otherwise naturalistic characters, I began to wonder whether this pop culture appropriation was as much a questioning of the use of such techniques as an end in itself.
There's also, significantly, a strong undercurrent about the political economy of the country these young people are about to become (if they aren't already) a part of. The first person we meet in A Crucible is Janine McDonald who, we later discover, is the mother of Happy, the "ringleader" among the five girls. Janine works as a housekeeper at a Hampton Inn, and she works very hard for very little. Happy has a job at a diner and also volunteers at a local soup kitchen (where she meets a former actor named Ronald who figures importantly in the story). Toni, another of the girls, is trying to get a job at Target (her interview for that job, with another fellow named Ron, is one the show's hilarious but joltingly true highlights).
If it sounds like A Crucible has a lot on its mind, well, it does. The piece runs about 100 minutes without intermission and it's a lot to take in in a single sitting. I think the overload is intentional; the show conjures our TMI zeitgeist with its excess.
Kudos to Bauman's smart writing, Gagnon's fluid direction, and the very talented ensemble. Haley Rawson is a standout in the pivotal role of Happy, with NicHi Douglas, Sarah O'Sullivan, Emma Ramos, and Rebecca Kopec also excellent as the other girls, Heather Litteer impressively physical as Janine, Robb Martinez showing lots of range as both Ron and Ronald, Chris Tyler as the doomed Randy, and Michael Brusasco as Father John.
This was my first exposure to the aesthetic of Brian Bauman and his company Perfect Disgrace Theater. It will not be the last; I am eager to see what this inventive artist comes up with next.