"Common vengeance writes the law" . . .
directed by Melissa Attebery
Rising Sun Performance Company production
May 11 - May 21 at the Kraine Theater
review May 11th 2006, by Louis Lopardi
Somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people were put to death during the varied fundamentalist witch hunts the modern world has seen. While the number is nothing compared to all the lives ultimately taken in the name of religions, it must give us pause. History's lesson is clear: even hitherto rational people can be driven to betray their neighbors and their own conscience in a State empowered by dogma.
A few years after 1949's "Death of a Salesman," and in large part a reaction to his own sufferings under Joseph McCarthy's Un-American Activities Commission, Arthur Miller wrote a kind of negative-morality play. "The Crucible" deals with the particular insanity that gripped this country at the end of the 17th century. (In the historical Salem case, the official proceedings ultimately claimed the lives of twenty-six people and two dogs.)
Confession is never enough in such a state; one must incriminate others in a descending spiral of obeisance to an irrational primacy of consciousness. Only a powerful personal integrity prevents this from eventually leading to the horrors of a Jonestown. In Miller's Salem of 1692, John Proctor - much like Father Grandier in Aldous Huxley's 1952 novel "The Devils of Loudon" - gives up his life rather than his integrity. As the Rising Sun Company's program wisely pointed out, the time is "then and now."
Crucible seldom tugs very hard at the heartstrings. It works by piling fact upon fact, detail upon mind numbing detail until in the course of three hours we would do anything to escape from the mind breaking morass of syllogism and false logic; - even perhaps sell our souls to the State. As these characters did just that, this well-drilled cast and director Melissa Attebery made them believable to us.
It is the town's regular pastor, Reverend Paris, whose observations of the 'wild girls' set the story in motion. John K. Hart plays him as agitated and angry right from the top, perhaps suggesting his own hysteria at having seen his brethren in flagrante. Less motion would make him a more powerful figure - and he must have been a powerful figure to engender so many conflicted emotions in Salem town. Akia's highly focused Ann Putnam is another power player - a prime accuser using her knowledge of relationships to advantage. Jared Hill Mercier played a strong Thomas Putnam. (The real Ann Putnam repented in a decade and made public atonement for having caused so much mayhem.)
It takes careful dramaturgy to make the reverend Mr. Hale convincing in his theological about face. It is a minor flaw in an otherwise well crafted play, but a flaw which makes the actor's job harder. Nic Mevoli did a creditable job of portraying the inquisitor turned public defender, building from a mousy bureaucrat to an impassioned voice of sanity in his final "thundering wrath" speech. The pacing in that speech I felt was somewhat rushed, needing a climax and after-word. This is a tortured soul, after all, who has had his belief system shaken.
Brian Trybom played the pivotal John Proctor. He played him with total consistency in the long role, and simpler than most - as a simple man who wears his feelings near the surface. He was best in his quiet moments, when showing a fierce determination with young Abigail or inner conviction with his wife. Elizabeth Proctor was deeply played by Elizabeth Burke, who managed to show depth of spirit or inner fire with a subtle shift of body language and vocal tone.
The mad and maddening girls were well coached. As well played by Jenn Schatz, Mary Warren's palpable terror at the natural world made up for her lack of fear of physical violence. Kelly Scanlon played young Abigail as a lunatic sensualist, convincing in her role. Consistent and well focused, she sometimes succumbed to a modern delivery which weakened meanings. (The illicit affair was entirely a dramatic construct by Miller.)
There were small treasures in the bit parts. Jarret Summers (Francis Nurse) had a perfectly supported voice even when speaking softly, and the concomitant intense physical bearing. Unlike some, Lorraine Thompson (Rebecca Nurse) knows how to repeat a line; and certain lines and phrases repeat often in this highly operatic play.
The mad scenes were staged well, with hysteria - self induced or nay - having a believable contagion. A quibble: People do not always pace about violently when angry or frightened. Particularly in Act 1 there was too much dashing about the stage. (In Salem, entire rooms are half the size of that stage.) Good use was made of a rear projection screen both for evocative monochrome décor and shadow play. The simple evocative lighting was by G. Ben Swope, who also provided a delightfully macabre sound design.
Katherine Stebbins' costuming for the large cast was intuitively correct - monochromatic yet varied by station and mood. In this quasi-update, the snap-brim caps for the militia was perhaps unwise, suggesting - as they did in combination with the leather coats - Eastern European émigré. It is important to convey these were our folk and neighbors, humbly doing their part for the State.
Representing that State, the Deputy Governor as judge warns us that fear of the court simply equals guilt. "When I speak with God's voice, I will not have (it) crack with whimpering." William Greville played a stable, sober judge - his was the voice of reason, authority, and God. Who in the audience still does not know that the official belt buckles on the Nazi hordes that swept through Europe were emblazoned with the motto: "Gott Mit Uns" - God is with us.
"The Crucible" quietly sows the seed of hope through civil dissent in often mentioning the true uprisings in Andover (where a court gone mad imprisoned hundreds) which overthrew their court after only three hangings. The colony overall started having ceremonies of atonement as early as 1697, with measures put in place all over the region to prevent further outbreaks of religious hysteria. It took yet another decade for official apologies to the condemned.
In this play from the 50's the voice of government proclaims "…a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it... (in these times) we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world." It is the identical argument the Nazis gave when banning opposing political parties. It is much the same argument we hear today from those who countenance the suppression of civil liberties and dissent. By the end of the evening, "all our pretense" is indeed "stripped away."
We live in a different world now than the one in which this play first surfaced. We still imprison people who do not name their informants, but they are not tortured to death (as was in fact the real Giles Cory). But we, what is left of the middle classes, are also increasingly less likely to dissent. When Julius and Ethyl Rosenberg were executed in June of 1953, the premier cast of "The Crucible" in the Martin Beck Theatre (now the Hirschfeld) stood in a moment of silence.
"Ars Longa, vita brevis . . . Judgment is difficult,- one must be prepared to do what is right." -Hippocrates.