nytheatre.com review by Kat Chamberlain
February 8, 2008
Arthur Miller's The Crucible is ripe with many trenchant themes: the inherently abusive nature of high authority, and the fear that such authority engenders among decent people, leading them sometimes to commit monstrous crimes against one another; the hypocrisy and self-righteousness that breed intolerance and hatred; and not least, the love that can transcend them all. But it is a particular challenge to convey to the audience that the shrill hysteria depicted in this play is not just a piece of drama. Not only was this once a part of our history—Miller studied the 1692 Salem witchcraft trials extensively, and wrote the play during the McCarthy Red Scare—but it is also an ever-present danger, an ongoing injustice that demands our attention.
The Schoolhouse Theater and Mare Nostrum Elements have done just that, giving us a thrilling production that is politically resonant and, more importantly, emotionally real, believable, and outright piercing. The play starts with the eerie and erotic midnight dance of a group of young girls. Fearing punishment from the adults—and taking advantage of a strange recent phenomenon in their village of children being sick or stillborn—the leader of the group, Abigail, starts pointing fingers at those who have crossed her at one time or another. One in particular is Elizabeth Proctor, her former employer and the wife of her one-time lover, John. Other girls follow suit and cry "witches," and soon a Reverend John Hale is brought in to investigate, a court is set up, and Deputy Governor Danforth has a mass persecution going.
The play sports many characters and relies heavily on their interaction in response to the grotesque oppression. Their human decency is defined by how far each is willing to go to protect loved ones, his or her own honor, and in the final moment, the truth as s/he sees it. After a somewhat shaky start, this production winds tighter and tighter with each scene, and culminates in a climax that is shattering. Director Pamela Moller Kareman makes brilliant choices in tightening up certain scenes such as the court proceedings, cutting down scene changes to keep the tension consistent, utilizing the stage smartly—I love how she places the actors as witnesses of the event—and finding the right tone for her actors. The overall effect is a fresh sensibility for one of the best-known American plays.
The acting is uneven, and sometimes distinctly so, but two of the leads, Sarah Bennett as Elizabeth Proctor and Simon MacLean as John Proctor, are absolutely outstanding. They keep the whole show grounded and close to home, as two people we fully recognize. Bennett embodies a quiet strength and fierce dignity that is simply mesmerizing. She is the best Elizabeth I have ever seen, a victim who has such incandescent inner beauty that it inspires. MacLean's John emerges a hero in the end, physically and emotionally matching Bennett with blazing power. These two fine actors have a chemistry that is rare to come by. Kevin Albert gives us an earnest and intelligent Reverend John Hale, who abandons the persecution when his conscience finally awakens. David Licht's Deputy-Governor Danforth, who takes over the trial, is pitch-perfect and thoroughly frightening. Noteworthy also are John Pollard's spare yet striking scenic design, David Pentz's lighting, and Matt Stine's sound and music that elevate the show artistically to a high order.
This production is how Miller must have intended: a biting social commentary submerged within a gripping story. It says two things and they are worth repeating: One person has enough power to stand up to any evil. And in the end, that can make all the difference in the world.