by Arthur Miller
Theatre St. Thomas
It's probably facile to say that the test of a play is its potential to stay relevant long after its original context and occasion have vanished from our collective memory. Surely, though, it's one test. When we see productions of Othello or Antigone or The Seagull we often feel invited to see them as newly resonant, as speaking across the years -- even the centuries -- directly to us.
It's something of a surprise that Arthur Miller's monumental The Crucible, originally created as a scream of frustration and rage at a fairly transitory political situation -- the spasm of anticommunist paranoia which peaked about ten years after the Second World War -- would have maintained that feeling of immediate resonance a half century on, when Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities are only fading memories. And yet, as Ilkay Silk points out in her director's note for the production she's directed for Theatre Saint Thomas, its concerns are perhaps more resonant now than at any time since it burst on the scene in 1953.
There is no way to escape the parallels generated when Deputy Governor Danforth defends the witchhunt's methods by explaining that "a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between. This is a sharp time, now, a precise time -- we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world. Now, by God's grace, the shining sun is up, and them that fear not light will surely praise it." The resonance with speeches we've heard in quite recent memory is uncanny.
Silk's production is centered on those resonances: echoes from a world where evil and good could seem so easy to see and divide, where any evil was all evil, where sexual dalliance was one with mass murder and lechery was the equivalent of plowing on Sunday or signing your soul on to Satan's army. She pares away all of the richly detailed circumstance of Miller's painstakingly described Salem; gone are the fresh-hewn beams of a raw colony in the midst of the forbidding wilderness, gone are the accoutrements of the court and the homey coziness of a Salem farmstead. What we get in this production is a square, wood-floored playing area, with the audience (and, often, much of the large cast) ranged around to watch the confrontations between authority and reasonableness, between decency and self-righteous inflexibility, between those who see the world as black and white, illuminated by the hot fire that melts down all concealment, and those others who live in the shadows of uncertainty, indecision, compromise and love. All the details that Miller specified, as he carefully placed his characters in 1692, in Salem, Massachusetts, in a village only recently carved out of the forests, are burned away. A bare minimum of props -- four chairs at the corner and a bed in the middle; a deal table with four chairs; four black benches at the edges of the playing area -- remind us, along with the thoughtful modern costumes, that these are not people in the throes of some ancient hysteria we can feel safe from -- some irrational nightmare of witches or communists under the bed -- but recognizable people living in our world. People who watch each other as we watch them, people who struggle in public over questions like what right anyone has to demand that you justify yourself and prove your purity; what constitutes evidence and proof when claims of land and kin, doctrine, careers, and sexual relationships underlie the matter; what happens to human reason and reasonability when the Unalterable Law of God is taken to be in the hands of some weighty, unquestionable authority.
From the outset, it's clear that everything about this production is rock solid. This is signalled particularly in the wonderful mechanics which get us into the play and which bridge the two breaks between acts and the transitions in and out of intermission. The soundscape by Mike Doherty and the lighting by Chris Saad (both mentioning students as part of the process) are perfectly timed, elegantly structured and powerfully effective. The ominous, tense violin chords, the chanting children's voices, the staccato, rhythmic racket which Doherty blends into the soundscape, are attuned perfectly to the slow, focused lighting changes -- especially the motif of a single overhead light on the square acting space, which begins and ends each scene.
Miller's story is simple enough in outline, and (partly due to the influence of this play), most people already know about how a group of frustrated adolescent girls ignited a firestorm of venal accusation and public hysteria that, building on a community's inflexible and puritanical attachment to the literal truth of the Bible and the fundamental sinfulness of humanity, and its deep hunger for absolute certainties and truth, destroy the lives of scores of their fellow citizens. Miller's play focuses on one such destroyed life, that of the Salem farmer John Procter, who has made what turns out to be the fatal mistake of questioning the authority of the local preacher and the group that supports him. But we watch as other families besides his are destroyed, ostensibly in the service of rooting out Satan's influence in the community, but in fact, as is made very clear, in the service of the individual motives of accusers and those who stand to gain from the destruction.
Within that frame, the mammoth cast -- twenty-one actors -- holds a continuous, unbroken focus through the arc of Miller's action, with a tension that is utterly unrelieved. As one has come to expect from productions under Silk's direction, it is the ensemble playing that is the main star of this show; but it is a rather different sort of ensemble than we've seen in productions like The Caucasian Chalk Circle; here, it is often the case that there'll be ten or twelve people on stage, all but two or three of whom are functioning primarily as witnesses. It would be easy for those characters, having no props, no lines, and no obvious role, to become stick figures in a pageant, but they don't. This is mainly because of the brilliant theatre-in-the-round blocking, which finds ways to keep characters from being static, or to keep from losing sections of the audience. We're invited to watch the watchers -- the malevolent Abigail watching as the Reverend Hale tries to revive the inexplicably comatose daughter of Reverend Parris, for example, or John Procter watching as the Deputy Governor decides to issue arrest warrants for all the people who've signed a petition in support of him. As is often the case when a production is laid out with care, the movements on stage always ensure that the audience knows where to look -- who's important, right now, among the people on stage.
That clear control, that sense that you're in good hands and that the production is one in which (what one always hopes for in theatre) everything you see is deliberate, intended, and meaningful, frees the audience to attend to the characters and their complex motives, to think about their resonance for us. Silk's cast are so clearly focused on the central impact of the play that the production doesn't seem as much to be about "acting" as it is about giving us the character's motives and feelings. This is particularly apparent in the snap and sparkle of dialogue between two or three characters; almost invariably the timing is absolutely accurate, so that you find yourself listening to conversation rather than understanding lines (and it is not at all trivial that in this production almost every speech is audible everywhere in the Black Box, a remarkable achievement given its difficult acoustics and the fact that, because it's theatre in the round, much of the time a speaker will be facing away from you).
Everyone in the large cast is so universally solid that it seems almost invidious to single out some for special mention, but there are some remarkable individual performances. Carl Dalton's John Procter is strong, reflective, charismatic and at the same time vulnerable and self doubting. "I speak my own sins," he says, "I cannot judge another. I have no tongue for it." Watching Dalton as the Chorus in last year's Romeo and Juliet, one knew there was a kind of calm solidity in his stage presence: the power of his voice and stance here, however, is another thing entirely.
His antagonist, Deputy Governor Danforth, is played as a near-nazi inquisitor by Clark Colwell, with an intensity of focus and a passion for consistency that cools the blood. His speech about the clarity of the world in which good and evil are so neatly discerned and so readily judged is one with his unrelenting consistency: "Them that will not confess will hang. Postponement now speaks a floundering on my part; reprieve or pardon must cast doubt upon the guilt of them that died till now. While I speak God's law, I will not crack its voice with whimpering."
It's arguable, I think, that while the conflict between Procter and Danforth, and the relationship between Procter and his wife (solidly and sympathetically played by Emily Curry), are the structural focus of Miller's play, his real interest, and perhaps his real sympathy, is in the spiritual voyage of the Reverend John Hale. Hale, played with intelligence and a nice, hesitant confidence by Step Taylor, arrives full of certainty and bearing the weight of authority as he brings in his books and his confidence that they hold the key to identifying Satan's work ("We shall need hard study if it comes to tracking down the Old Boy"). By the end of the play, however, watching the lives go up in flames and seeing the dark hints of the motives of the accusers -- and caught up by the clear integrity and honesty of John Procter -- we find him not only repudiating the Court and its functionaries, but pleading with Elizabeth Procter to help her husband lie to the court, "confess" his consorting with the Devil, and save his life by any means. What had been as clear as a chessboard -- separating out the black from the white was to be no trick at all -- has now become a chaos of human motives and frailties, love and lechery and loyalty mixed together inextricably. In Act I, Hale says of his books, "Here is all the invisible world, caught defined, and calculated. In these books the Devil stands stripped of all his brute disguises." By the end, he is saying, with intense sarcasm, when Danforth asks him what he's doing visiting the condemned "witches": "Why, it is all simple. I come to do the Devil's work. I come to counsel Christians they should belie themselves."
There are too many fine performances to mention here. Perhaps it's enough to say that among the score of actors I didn't hear a false note, nor see an instance when anybody lost focus, or wasn't entirely engaged in the seamless machine of this production. If there's one hesitation about all this, it's more about Miller's script than about this production: one could argue that his anger was so strong that he commits the very mistake he's inveighing against: showing us evil so evil that we don't have any temptation toward sympathy with the sinners. The contriving, evil Abigail (a scary, snarling performance by Aimee Christie), the pompous, grasping Putney (solidly covetous and self-satisfied, as played by Richard Russell), the venal, hypocritical Cheever (Derek Mason, tattling to Danforth with ill concealed glee that Proctor had torn up the warrant to arrest his wife), and perhaps especially the self-centered, sanctimonious, paranoid Parris (played with a nice "Harvard College" condescension to the rubes by Stu Forrestell) -- all these and others may be people we recognize, but it's difficult for us to imagine being them. Evil there may be, but there's an irony in Miller's feeding our hunger to see it so clearly.
Still, that's there in the script, and Theatre Saint Thomas has done the script full justice. For my money, theatre doesn't get much better than this.