The Crucible by Arthur Miller

[review published? in the Concord Journal?]

Players' Crucible Is Powerful, Instructive

by Christopher Childs
The Concord Players' current production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible reflects much credit on the group, and affords its audience a very good opportunity to reexamine one of the more powerful plays of this or any time.  The Crucible, like nearly all Miller plays, taxes the artistic resources of any company, and community theatres rarely have in their ranks actors who can flesh out Miller's cerebrally-drawn characters, so it is gratifying to note that this cast is largely successful in breathing life into their roles.  In other respects as well, the production is effective and even notable.

The Crucible is based, albeit with much license, on the Salem witch trials of the 1690s, and it is a deeper play than audiences often suppose.  The work, first produced in the Joe McCarthy era and narrowly perceived as an anti-McCarthy manifesto, is foremost a play about the ease and the common acceptability of lying.  Audiences regarding the piece as a mere condemnation of paranoia and intolerance have, in a sense, missed the point: required reading for a deeper understanding of the play might well be Scott Peck's People of the Lie, or possibly Sissela Bok's bestseller, Lying; failing these, an equally effective preparation might be an inquiring review of the New Testament.

The focus of The Crucible is on John Proctor, a character created by Miller and inserted in the historical context of Salem Village.  An essentially decent and unremarkable man, Proctor is caught up in the witch madness through a past sexual liaison with the girl whose accusations initiate the trials.  The girl, Abigail Williams, is niece to the controversial village minister Samuel Parris, and has lately been a serving-girl to the Proctors; Proctor's confession to his wife Elizabeth ends the illicit relationship, and Abigail is sent packing.  A wild nature encouraged by her conquest of Proctor, whom she entertains dreams of recapturing, leads her into the deeper mischief of the witch accusations, which feed on village feuds and jealousies great and small.  The expanding circle of evil is inflamed by the actions of a court headed by a representative of the Crown, one Deputy Governor Danforth, whose fascination with matters intangible leads to an institutionalization of the hysteria manifested by Abigail and her covey of impressionable young companions.  With many others, from the saintly Rebecca Nurse to the litigious but wonderfully indomitable Giles Corey, Proctor is eventually accused, convicted and sentenced to die; in the play's last, searing scene he must conclude whether to accept a proffered reprieve at the price of an ignoble confession, or make his peace by way of the rope.

The great weight of any production of The Crucible rests on Proctor, and here, happily, John McAuliffe's characterization is mainly engaging and effective.  McAuliffe creates a naturalistic base for the character and builds outward to the intense, emotional climax; along the way there is imprecision and an occasional excess of melodrama (the raw power is best saved for the ending, and elsewhere McAuliffe's voice is most effective in a lower register), but ultimately the character well serves the play.  A more exact, if necessarily less attractive, characterization is offered by Don Dill as Danforth; a very slight, rare excess of gesture intrudes on Dill's work, but the carefully detailed portrayal of a Danforth who is equal parts sage and fool, and victim of his own unacknowledged reverence for the dramatic, is excellent.  As Proctor fronts the lie of his own inadequacy by facing the issue of preserving life through a lie or ennobling it in death, Dill's mesmerized Danforth embraces the apparent lie of spectral evidence, and the greater lie of his own ability and authority to perceive the workings of God in the actions of men – or girls.  In counterpoint to both Danforth and Proctor is John Hale, the minister from Beverly who at first abets and then, in awakening horror, repudiates the court; he is thoughtfully played here by Eric Behr, whose craftsmanlike approach illuminates Hale's essential dignity.  In these three characters especially lies the opportunity for an audience to grasp the largest point of the play: in the matter of self-deceit, we are ultimately the victims of no one but ourselves.  Each of us entertain our favorite lies, even constellations of lies, about ourselves and the world, and one attains Grace by way of confrontation and relinquishment of such careless allegiances.  Even the unrecognized lie enters by invitation.

Though several of the historical villains in this production are a touch too villainous – as if the actors had resigned themselves to the judgment of history rather than maintaining an inner belief in their characters' self-deceptions – there is a variety of good performances.  Sarah Clawson's Rebecca Nurse, a lesser character in this play than in history, is nonetheless well and movingly drawn; the gradual disintegration of Reverend Parris, weak-spined and all too understandable, is a pitiable undercurrent believably established by Jeff Schaeffer.  (Schaeffer's mustache is improbable for a minister of the period, yet it oddly complements the character, as the historical Parris was a failed merchant whose ordination had a degree of improbability to it in the first place.)  Roslyn Reed is quite wonderful as the Parrises' Barbadan servant Tituba; David Hannegan is fine as Giles Corey, though one hopes he may give the character increasing subtlety and reality during the run of the show.  Doreen Lundberg gives an affecting, painfully true portrayal of the Proctors' terrified serving-girl, Mary Warren, who strives desperately to escape from within the accusers' poisoned circle but cannot complete the break.  Adele Keohan's Elizabeth is quietly, even retiringly characterized, perhaps slightly too sympathetic given her eventual self-confession of coldness, but suitably in balance with McAuliffe's rendering of her husband.  Lorrain Cwelich's Abigail has a sustained, focused energy and intensity, though the character could be a bit more gently drawn; Ann Lareau's Mercy Lewis is a nicely realized support to Abigail throughout the play, whether speaking or reacting as in the court scene.  Backing all these performances are the multiple sets of Derek Till, the first of which have an excess of horizontal line, but all of which – particularly that of the last scene – well convey the flavor of time and place.  They, in turn, are enhanced by John Butterworth's lighting, and in all other technical aspects, particularly costumes, the Players have given this production good support.

Director John Barrett may first be congratulated on his casting, which largely assured the success of this production, and secondly on his elicitation of believable performances in a potentially melodramatic play.  Whether Barrett has consciously dealt with the deepest implications of the work is unclear, but his interpretation at least makes those implications accessible.  I would prefer he had not inserted a few of Proctor's lines from Miller's "literary" version of the final scene, as they resolve an issue more powerfully dealt with by the audience unaided; I also regret the excision of one brief scene which might have afforded a deeper view of Abigail's ensnarement in her own passions.  On opening night there were some lapses in pace and some occasional stilted blocking which detracted mildly from the performance, but the whole was essentially unified, sound and intelligently conceived.

One final note of importance: with the McCarthy era fading into sepia tones, it is easy for a contemporary Crucible audience to substitute the rhetorical and political extremism of the New Right as a thematic focus.  To view the work only in that light is a radical disservice to play and playgoer.  The Crucible – as any honest play– yearns to address the individual, whether or not he or she may be comfortable with such address.  Plays are never really about Other People.  Salem's greatest son (and Concord's respected adoptee), Nathaniel Hawthorne, who disdained social commentary and confined his investigations to the workings of the individual consciousness, might have put the matter this way: there is a Salem working in every heart, which can be purged only by the deepest exercise of awareness and diligence, and ultimately, of the spirit.

(Christopher Childs is an actor and writer living in Stow; he has ancestral and dramatic ties to Salem, and appeared recently as Reverend Nicholas Noyes of Salem Town in the PBS American Playhouse production, Three Sovereigns for Sarah.)