– – This play will probably always be part of the dramatic canon, because it tells a story that seems to repeat itself as often as summer rain. From Socrates to Christ, to Jan Hus, to Dreyfus, to the unthought-of victims of countless purges and pogroms throughout history, the human story is full of such moments. – –
You can’t understand The Crucible without understanding Arthur Miller, nor can you understand it without understanding the early 1950’s. No matter what the stage scenery, costumes and archaic dialogue will have you believe, the drama is not really about the Salem/ Andover witch trials of the 1690’s. Everything you see is mere proxy.
Lacking the sheer psychological intensity of Eugene O’Neill or the poetry of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller achieved icon status by staying topical. His first major play, All My Sons, looked at war profiteering, when post-WWII confidence was at its apex. His next play, Death of a Salesman, portrayed the bleak choices facing men in the post-war era.
Sometime after its triumph, Salesman’s director, Elia Kazan, appeared in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and effectively ratted out many of his colleagues. Though Miller was not personally named, the playwright was horrified, and likened it to the baseless Salem trials. He had his next play.
Though Miller did significant research into the characters and events of those trials, going as far as replicating Elizabethan English (though the setting is a century late) in his dialogue, everything is allegorical. Act III seems almost taken from the minutes of a HUAC hearing. Memes and phrases cut too close to the quick. There is much talk of “lists,” echoing both HUAC’s blacklists and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s media-ready bombast, complete with blank sheets of paper. Act IV drives the lance even deeper in, as the powers that be in old Massachusetts offer mercy to a select few if they perform a humiliating, and in fact self-destructive act of contrition. Miller also warned these early ‘50’s audiences about the unintended consequences of witch hunts, as economic devastation and open revolt spread through the colony, finally bringing an end to the trials.
But upon its debut in 1953, Americans saw communists behind every lamp post, and the histrionic McCarthy was at his zenith. Miller’s play was a parable, but the veneer was entirely too thin. New York drama critics, in fear for their careers, hustled to their typewriters to attack the drama as savagely and as repugnantly as their imaginations and editors would allow. For his troubles, Miller, thitherto in the clear, received a HUAC subpoena of his very own. It seemed the bonfire-stokers didn’t appreciate a lowly dramatist dramatically heralding the dangers of the bonfire they were stoking.
The play, well-crafted indeed, lives on because a generation of drama teachers at colleges and high schools throughout the world held it dear. For nearly six decades, it has been a staple of scholastic and collegiate theatre productions, building enough momentum for a 1996 film adaptation and a successful 2002 Broadway revival, and finally scores of productions by professional theatre companies worldwide.
The Keegan Theatre’s presentation is the latest in what has been and will be a Nile-length string of productions. Director Susan Marie Rhea is quite commendable. The sets she chooses are simple and realistic, and the lighting, until Act IV is nonchalant. So she chooses to let the cast do the work and draws the best performances possible from them.
Though the characters are hard to misinterpret, it is not always the easiest play to perform. In the climactic scene of Act III the stage is literally cluttered with actors, and they all move intricately and cannot always play off one another’s cues. In this, there is also potential for visual and dramatic beauty, and I’m happy to say you will find it in this production. Rhea’s placement and the performances of her actors make for visuals that look like they were painted by a 1960’s Norman Rockwell.
Just as McCarthy had his lists, I will produce my own list of standout characters and performances.
First we have the protagonist, John Proctor, a hard-bitten, practical man, who is first bemused then outraged by the trials as he belatedly recognizes the enormity of their sweep. This is all before they come to affect him personally. His one moral failing will be more than enough to make him Shakespearian. Played alternately gruff and tender by Mark A. Rhea, he is perhaps more “Manly” than seen in most productions, but this demeanor turns out drawing an even sharper point to his powerless in the last act.
Second, we see the Reverend John Hale, a sincere cleric, in contrast to the town’s pastor, Samuel Parris. He sees wickedness all around him, and with puritanical fervor seeks to drive it into the bat-cave it comes from. He learns too late that the peccadilloes he seeks to vanquish are trifles next to the wickedness his crusade spawns. Portrayed youthfully and passionately by Kevin Hasser, you will never decide if you like him or hate him.
Third, we have the villain of all villains, Abigail Williams, a mischievous girl who bullies her friends, and for her own self-preservation levels the original charges. As the story unfolds, she clearly cares not about the suffering she has wrought, and in fact perpetuates it for her sake. The image of Abby as a dominant figure and maestro of this sorrow is unshakable. In the closing scenes, you realize to your horror that she is indomitable in her perfidy. Because you will hate her so much, you will love Sarah Lasko. The University of Maryland senior plays her to perfection. Her best moments come in the scenes where she is wordless; the grim expressions of command, the feigned outrage and fear torture the audience as much as the characters around her, and when she smiles sweetly and waves to the audience in genuine gratitude during curtain call, you realize what a great actor she is. I will not jinx her by expressing where I think she will end up, but suffice it to say, I believe you will hear from her again.
Finally, of course, there is the chairman of HUAC… I mean Deputy Governor Danforth, an officious and indignant potentate with all the warmth of liquid nitrogen. It is his lack of simple human insight that is the tragic locus of this play. He always must dominate his scenes, and Kevin Adams is up to the task, playing him as overbearing and as blustery as you should expect.
This play will probably always be part of the dramatic canon, because it tells a story that seems to repeat itself as often as summer rain. From Socrates to Christ, to Jan Hus, to Dreyfus, to the unthought-of victims of countless purges and pogroms throughout history, the human story is full of such moments.
Americans, in particular seem prone to hysteria and resentment. Every group that upsets norms is met with fierce backlash. That is a special warning to those of you who are camped out in parks and squares throughout our country; your backlash is coming too. This is a basic human story, one that will repeat itself as long as people inhabit this earth. This is why Millers play connects to so many people. The fact that it is the best writing on the topic since Plato’s Apology doesn’t hurt, either.
By Arthur Miller
Produced by Keegan Theatre
Directed by Susan Marie Rhea
Reviewed by Steve Haskell
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes with a fifteen-minute intermission