A witch hunt, properly viewed and conducted, is a necessary part of society’s advancement — if we understand “witch” to be some part of the invisible universe which causes human pain and havoc, and if we conduct the hunt with scientific rigor and humility.
Thus had there been a witch hunt which found that the seven children Ann Putnam (Jessica Lefkow) lost died from whooping cough or diphtheria — common 17th century killers of children — instead of the supposed satanic machinations of the best person in Salem, Rebecca Nurse (Brigid Cleary), it would have been an immeasurable boon to a small community struggling to find a foothold on the American shore. Similarly, in playwright Arthur Miller’s own time, an honest effort to find American government officials who were on the Soviet payroll (such as Alger Hiss), instead of a headline-generating effort to tar anyone who expressed sympathy for or even interest in communism or socialism back when the US and USSR were allies might have enhanced American security, and saved the reputation of many good people in government, the arts and business.
The principal subject of Miller’s classic play The Crucible, now receiving a vigorous, superb revival at Olney Theatre Center, is therefore not simply a witch hunt but a bad witch hunt, conducted stupidly, with accusations motivated by cupidity, greed and envy, and judicial proceeding conducted by clap-logic. Salem’s Minister, Samuel Parris (Michael Russotto) weeps over the seemingly catatonic body of his daughter Betty (Mia Rilette). He has discovered Betty, along with many other girls and young women, dancing in the forest night while his slave Tituba (Lilian Oben) chants, in a language he does not understand, over a boiling cauldron. This is enough evidence for Parris to conclude that he is watching a Satanic ritual, and when Betty collapses in fright at his arrival, and cannot be revived, he is certain that she has been contaminated by a witch.
And why does that terrify him? Not because he believes Betty’s immortal soul is at risk. As he explains to his crafty niece Abigail Williams (Dani Stoller) — another forest-dancer — he fears the stench of witchcraft will attach to his ministry, and thus loosen his claim as God’s representative in Salem. Accordingly, he has summoned the great religious scholar, Reverend John Hale (Scott Parkinson), with the obvious intention of winning exoneration. Something else happens, though.
As Thomas (Bolton Marsh) and Ann Putnam, Giles Corey (Craig MacDonald), John Proctor (Chris Genebach) and Nurse stream into Betty’s bedroom, the conversation turns from spectral to more quotidian matters: Parris’ complaints about his compensation; land disputes between Putnam and Corey, and the like. While this is going on, you can see the wheels turning in Abigail’s head. She is older than the other girls — seventeen — and impressively self-possessed; it is likely that if this goes South it will land on her head. So when Hale arrives, all pompous and full or arrogance, carrying the four books which he insists contains all knowledge in the world on witchcraft and Satanic possession, Abigail decides to change the narrative.
She confesses to being Satan’s ally. And she indicts other women in the town as witches — a hanging offense in Salem.
She is careful to insist that she has turned from Satan and toward Christ, and that only the town outliers — the beggar, the drunk, the gossip — are witches. But in the fullness of time another idea occurs to her.
She had once been a serving-girl in the Proctor household. There, while Proctor’s wife Elizabeth (Rachel Zampelli) was ill, Abigail and John had sex. Elizabeth found out, and banished Abigail from the household. What if Elizabeth were hanged as a witch? Would Abigail not have a clear path to John?
Soon she, and the others who danced in the forested night, have joined in a conspiracy of hysteria. Susanna Walcott (Yakima Rich), Mercy Lewis (Guadalupe Campos) and Mary Warren (Miranda Rizzolo) alternately have visions, snap and shudder like sufferers of St. Vitus Dance, and call out accusations against some of the town’s finest people. A court is convened. Judges are appointed. People are arrested. People are hanged.
There are twenty characters, but ultimately The Crucible is a story about two men. John Proctor is one of them, a good man and, like all of us, a sinner. He stews in shame and guilt about the violence he did to his marriage. He is a brave man, but not a foolish one, and he is willing to take on these catastrophic trials only when his wife is arrested. But once he is in, he is all in, risking everything not only to save his wife but to redeem the town, and the good people scheduled to die because of hysteria and nonsense.
Chris Genebach is spot-on in portraying this conflicted man, who wants nothing more than to live his life peaceably with his family and friends. Genebach gives him a little swagger, so that you can imagine that he might get a bit full of himself on occasions, but he also gives him a great open-hearted humility (particularly in his scenes with Elizabeth) which helps to keep us clearly on Proctor’s side throughout the ups and downs of his narrative.
closes May 20, 2018
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The other man is Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth (Paul Morella), who does not appear before the second Act. It is Danforth’s job to conduct the witch trials, and he does so rigorously, and with enthusiasm. Miller has reduced the pantheon of judges at the witch trials to two — Danforth and the thuggish local Judge John Hathorne (Shpend Xani) — and so the entire manic hysteria of the proceedings must be distilled in those two men.
I have seen Danforth played as a reasonable man, who makes fatal choices only after some deliberation. Morella, and director Eleanor Holdridge, make a different choice, to the play’s advantage. It is clear that Morella’s Danforth has one mission: to uphold the authority of the court. The easiest path to that objective is to hang witches, which at once shows that the court has a purpose, and that it is fulfilling that purpose. He speaks the lines Miller wrote for him, of course, but he speaks them zealously, with the clear intention of scouring away any doubt. He is a supremely credulous man, but his credulity is in the service of speedy trials — so speedy, in fact, that his court has already sentenced seventy-two people to death when Mary Warren comes to recant her testimony. Danforth, as Morella plays him, will broke no opposition, or even delay — even from those who purport to be his allies. He is large and in charge, and Morella nails it.
But this large and complex production of a large and complex story is graced by many fine performances, two most notably. Elizabeth Proctor and John Hale are the two characters who change the most in this, and Zampelli and Parkinson are marvelous. Consider Zampelli’s task, in her first scene: Elizabeth Proctor is furious about John’s adultery, but she is ashamed of that fury, because she knows that Christ requires them to forgive the transgressions of others, and so she tries to put on a good and welcoming spirit, but she cannot, because of her fury. Thus Zampelli has an entire narrative arc which she must discharge the first moment she opens her mouth. She does so, beautifully.
Hale’s narrative arc is slower, but impressive. He begins in certainty — absolutely convicted that he can identify the devil’s handiwork, and remedy it — and eventually lands in an ocean of doubt. Scott Parkinson is terrific in showing who Hale is, and what he becomes. For Danforth, the evidence against witchcraft is a political threat, but for Hale, it is an existential threat, the meaning of which is that his whole life has been disastrously wrong all along. Hale faces it anyway. It is excruciating to watch, and wonderful, and Parkinson gets all of it.
Although Abigail Williams, Susan Walcott, Mercy Lewis and Mary Warren are teenagers, the actors who play them are not, and Rich, Campos, Rizzolo and especially Stoller are absolutely convincing. (Kelly Crandall d’Amboise’s choreography for a scene in which the girls feign demonic possession is out of this world.) But Mia Rilette, who plays the Reverend Parris’s catatonic-on-demand, is a child — a fifth grader — and she does a perfect job. It is hard to get good acting from children, since they typically lack sufficient personal experience to display the emotional state required by the text. Notwithstanding, Rilette plays Parris’ lying, conniving, seizure-feigning daughter convincingly, to her credit and that of director Holdridge. (Mia Rilette and Caroline Rilette alternate in this role.)
Set designer Andrew R. Cohen uses a collection of red boards, vertical and horizontal and diagonal, as a substitute for the wilderness which surrounds Salem. The founding of New England was an errand into the wilderness for the Puritans who set out to do it; Cohen’s set, which superimposes both personal residences and institutional space on the wilderness, never quite overcomes it, and so we can see that seventy years after Plymouth Rock, the Pilgrim’s promise is unfulfilled.
But I could go on. There are dozens of things to like about this production, and not much of anything wrong with it. If you look at your watch after the first act, you will be astonished to see that an hour thirty has gone by, and the entire production will be among the shortest three hours you have ever spent in theater.
As you know, the Salem witch trials really happened, and most of the characters in Miller’s play were real people. John Hathorne was such a rotter — one account says that he constantly smiled while pronouncing the death penalty — that his great-great grandson, the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, changed the spelling of his own name so as not to be associated with the Judge. Many people died as a result of this hysteria, although not as many as Miller’s play implies. One of the victims refused to speak before the court and so was suffocated by rocks, just as Miller describes. The real Abigail Williams was eleven years old at the time, though, and John Proctor was near seventy. There is no historical evidence that they ever had an affair.
The invisible universe may have held an explanation for the Salem witch trials, after all. Although the matter is uncertain, many scholars now believe that the children’s seizures, hallucinations and accusations which initiated the Salem witch trials came about because they ate rye contaminated by the fungus ergot, which is one of the active ingredients in LSD.
The Crucible by Arthur Miller, directed by Eleanor Holdridge . Featuring Jonathan Atkinson, Guadalupe Campos, Brigid Cleary, Dylan Fleming, Chris Genebach, Jessica Lefkow, Craig MacDonald, Bolton Marsh, Paul Morella, Lilian Oben, Scott Parkinson, Yakima Rich, Mia Rilette (alternating with Caroline Rilette), Miranda Rizzolo, Michael Russotto, Dani Staller, Shpend Xani and Rachel Zampelli . Scenic design: Andrew R. Cohen . Costume design: Sarah Cubbage . Lighting design: Nancy Schertler . Sound design: Patrick Calhoun . Wig and hair consultant: Dori Beau Seigneur . Choreographer: Kelly Crandall d’Amboise . Director of production: Dennis A. Blackledge . Production stage manager: John Keith Hall . Senior associate artistic director: Jason King Jones. Reviewed by Tim Treanor.