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Elegant Elegy

The Alley spins new life into Arthur Miller's 50-year-old morality tale

The Crucible is hardly the late great Arthur Miller's finest script -- there is perhaps no American tragedy better than his Death of a Salesman. But under Gregory Boyd's ever imaginative direction, the Alley's current production of the 50-year-old play is remarkably powerful.

Written in 1953, the script fictionalizes what happened during the Salem witch trials of the 1600s. It's also a biting attack on Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare of the early 1950s, when he ruined lives with his Committee on Un-American Activities. Miller's play is a dark mirror for the reactionary and often violent politics of fear.

As Miller tells it, Salem's trouble starts with a beautiful servant girl named Abigail Williams (Jennifer Cherry) who's had a steamy affair with a past employer, the good farmer John Proctor (James Black). He fired her when the whole thing got too messy, and to get back at him and the rest of the town, the scheming girl ends up accusing Proctor's wife, Elizabeth (Elizabeth Heflin), and many others of witchcraft. The men of the town champion her ludicrous story, and in the end several innocents hang because the men won't back down. They refuse to admit a mistake, even when it means the deaths of their neighbors.

James Black's John Proctor is wonderfully complex.
Joel Johnson
James Black's John Proctor is wonderfully complex.

Details

The Crucible: Through March 20 $20-$50.
Bad Dates: Through April 3 $40-$45.

The Crucible: Hubbard Stage
Bad Dates: Neuhaus Stage

Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.

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As relevant as the story might be, it's an overly simple morality tale, often taught in high school. The good guys are pure, and the bad guys are evil to the core. To make matters worse, the female characters get spanked all the way through. Abigail is a wicked sexpot who'll stop at nothing to get her man. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is a morose but good-hearted hausfrau, who caused her husband to stray when she became depressed.

Given the script's melodramatic heart, the Alley's rich production is all the more impressive. Boyd's direction spins a new and powerful emotional life into the narrative. A good deal of the credit goes to his cast, especially Black's wonderfully complex John Proctor. The actor's muscular presence is full of sexual vitality complicated by guilt, desire and rage. His Proctor is not a simple fly to Abigail's spidery intentions; he's filled with a lusty, strutting arrogance. When he sees the town going crazy around him, he believes he can bluster into the courtroom and fix things. When that doesn't happen, we watch his slow and painful demise -- and as performed by Black, it's devastating. His Proctor is a man who lives by his own rules, the perfect American everyman swallowed slowly by a system that he comes to realize is beyond his control. The final scene, in which Proctor must face up to his own arrogant mistakes, is as mighty as anything the Alley has done this season.

Arthur Miller died this February, just a few months shy of his ninetieth birthday. This production was meant as a sort of birthday tribute; instead, it must stand as an elegant elegy to one of the greatest playwrights America has ever produced. It proves that even Miller's weaker plays can make for terrific theater.

Bad Dates, Good Actress

An icky date can happen to anyone. But Theresa Rebeck's one-woman show, Bad Dates, is a reminder of how hilarious they can be in retrospect.

The whole production takes place in single mom Haley's bedroom, where she primps and dresses for several dates as she tells us about her life. The 90-minute monologue is chopped into several scenes; in each, she's either returning from a date or getting ready for one. We get to watch her mistakes and hear her horror stories. One moron talks endlessly about his colonoscopy; another is gay. Haley, of course, overlooks the man she's meant to be with simply because she meets him at a dinner full of wannabe New Agers who talk about preserving the lives of bugs. She calls him the bug guy. This television-style story is complicated slightly by Haley's unlikely working life, involving the mafia-involved owner of the restaurant she manages and a cash-filled shoebox under her bed. But the script is mostly taken up with her prattle about bad dates.

Good thing Haley is played by the utterly charming Annalee Jefferies. It is Jefferies alone, under Jeremy B. Cohen's direction, who keeps the ship of this show from sinking under the weight of its own cuteness. She moves about Jeff Cowie's funky bedroom set with girlish grace as she tries on skirts and shoes and giggles and moans about her experiences. When Haley triumphs in the end, Jefferies make it impossible not to smile along with her. There's nothing here that you won't find on television any night of the week, but Jefferies's radiant charisma makes the night out worth it. -- Lee Williams

 
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