Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Crucible

‘CRUCIBLE’ disturbs, illuminates and impresses at Great Lakes Theater Festival

A number of years ago, the faculty of the college at which I was teaching, decided to do a sit-in due to what we perceived to be an improper “witch hunt” aimed at the faculty leadership. I decided to spend my class time reading aloud from ‘THE CRUCIBLE’, a play now being produced by the Great Lakes Theatre Festival. I did so because I thought it was a perfect lesson for young minds to hear the brilliant words of Arthur Miller regarding misguided attempts to manipulate and control people.

Miller, one of America’s greatest modern playwrights, used the theatrical concept of historification as his writing device for ‘THE CRUCIBLE.’ The technique is to write a play based on true or near true actions of a different era to represent a present day set of circumstances.

Miller’s script was penned in 1953 as a protest against Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunt for Communists in the government and entertainment industry during the early 1950s. The country was in hysteria for fear of Russia and its emergence as a major power. McCarthy fed on that hysteria, much like the religious fanatics of Massachusetts colony set upon so-called witches because of the hard times facing the people of the late 17th century. Miller was questioned by the House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities and held strong feelings against the witch hunting being done and how it had ruined many lives.

The play is relevant today as the Bush administration, using the hysteria of 9-11, has conducted witch hunts and taken away citizen civil rights. Much of this was based on a parallel to the play’s line, “You are either with us or against us.” You are a “good American” as defined by this administration, or you are a traitor.

The play also reflects attitudes of the present day religious right, who, much like the Salem religious fanatics, hunt out those not agreeing with their interpretation of what is “right and wrong.” They attack homosexuals, those who believe in abortion, and those who champion stem cell research, for “poisoning” the “good” folk.

The story concerns an accusation against Goode Proctor by a teenaged girl who, after having a sexual affair with Proctor’s husband, John, accuses Goode Proctor and others of being witches. The chief magistrate, much like Joseph McCarthy, closes his eyes to facts and is swayed by his own agenda. In the process, the question of one’s reputation comes center stage. Proctor cries out, after refusing to sign a document in which he would falsely agree that he has seen the devil, “Because it is my name. Because I cannot have another in my life.”

Great Lakes Theatre Festival director Drew Barr not only understands the underbelly of the play, but has the ability to develop the script’s emotional and logical meaning.

From Narelle Sissons’ stark and disturbing bare plank-wood set, to Rick Martin’s overly bright lighting, to Fitz Patton’s sometimes unnerving music, the entire production screams, “extreme!” I was uncomfortable from the start of the play. In this case, uncomfortable is positive. It made me aware of each of the emotionally tearing lines and each underscore of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man.

Andrew May is excellent as John Procter. His last set of speeches, the emotional fulcrum of the play, were stirring. He was, in fact, a man caught between his need to be a good father and husband, and live a life of purpose and self-respect. We saw his self-respect soar, as his resolve came forth.

Aled Davies, as the Deputy Governor, was scary in his reflection of what could well-be some of the present day Supreme Court judges, closed to all but narrow views of what it means to be just.

Jeffrey Hawkins transitioned well as the strongly opinionated John Hale, the reverend who eventually sees the light and realizes the harm caused by being stiff-necked.

As was needed, I hated Abigail Williams, the master manipulator, as portrayed be Sara Bruner. David Anthony Smith was also appropriately obnoxious as the self-centered Reverend Parris.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: It is a shame and a blessing that a play like ‘THE CRUCIBLE’ has to exist. However, as witch-hunts continue, the theatre must have a voice like Miller’s to protest the taking away of rights. And, if such messages must be given a life, then they should be presented as effectively as the GLSF production.