When asked about Arthur Miller's The Crucible, the ubiquitous response seems to be, "I vaguely remember it from high school." There's a reason most don't continue a relationship with the play past when it's forced on them: despite the seriousness of its subject, The Crucible is a hollow and rather histrionic piece of work. Even so, the production currently playing at the Alley comes across stronger and more sophisticated than what might be expected from what is essentially an unsophisticated play.
The subject, of course, is the Salem witch trials, and Miller follows the historical record of that period of hysteria in spirit, if not always in literal fact. When the play opens, Betty Parris, the 10-year-old daughter of Salem's ambitious fire-and-brimstone preacher, has taken ill after being discovered dancing in the woods with several other of the village's young women, and the town is attributing her illness to "unnatural causes." As the Reverend Parris questions his niece Abigail, the ringleader of the cavorting, she turns the suspicions about her into accusations of witchcraft toward many of Salem's more unsavory citizens. Abigail has another motive in her finger pointing: she and a local farmer, John Proctor, have had a brief passion that she would like to rekindle, and an accusation against Proctor's wife could clear away a major obstacle. As the trials commence and more and more citizens are hauled before the tribunal, Proctor and his wife Elizabeth become the characters around which the plot revolves.
The concept of the crucible is an evocative one (the Alley program -- talk about shades of high school -- sports the inevitable dictionary definition of "crucible"), and Kevin Rigdon's set and director Gregory Boyd's staging vividly bring the play's central metaphor to life. A stage is a natural crucible: it's a vessel in which characters react and interact, often hotly and explosively. One character after another comes into the Alley stage's charged center as if they were entering a huge bowl or the center of a maelstrom. First it's the angelic, tragic little Betty, a vision prone in her tiny bed, inert even as she creates havoc. Next it's dissembling Abigail, and later it's Elizabeth Proctor.
As designed by Kevin Rigdon of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, the stage's wings are abstract structures roofed with dry grass; this theme is continued in the backdrop, and hay is even strewn around the stage by the teenage accusers before the final scene. Hay summons to mind witch burning (although the Salem witches were hung), and the general readiness of this repressed and quarrelsome village of Quakers to spontaneously combust. Spare and elegant, the sets are perhaps the production's strongest point. Another strength is Boyd's direction, which is smooth and sure, although his cinematic sound effects are at times rather hokey with their dry grass rattles and native drums.
Tiffany Fraser's Abigail seems fully capable of deception; a beautiful and powerful young woman brutally manhandled by fate (she lay beside her parents as they were massacred in their beds by Indians), she has cast aside all scruples. But though we believe her passionately declared sincerity -- even as we come to know her to be a deceiver -- in the final scene, when she leads her cohorts in their "possessed" act, twirling with crazed eyes and crying out against invisible spirit familiars, the audience can't help but laugh. Although it's a tall order given the melodramatic pitch of the scene, we should feel here some of the power and horror that has held the puritanical court in sway. But Fraser isn't quite up to it. As her eyes flash maniacally, we see only absurdity, and the play's climax sinks into bathos.
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As John and Elizabeth Proctor, James Black and Shelley Williams excel at taking an obvious text and investing it with maturity and complexity. Black's Proctor, a plainspoken farmer and natural man, is a pre-Revolutionary cousin to his Murphy from the Alley's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest of last season, a rough but honest individual who'll speak his mind no matter the consequences. Williams' Elizabeth Proctor is intelligent and dignified, a thoroughly moral woman, but not starchy or off-puttingly pious. Her presence on stage transmits a glow of integrity and simple goodness.
Deanna Dunmyer plays the Proctors' serving girl Mary -- whose testimony vacillates as she falls sway to the contradictory forces acting on her. Dunmyer conveys Mary's abject character through a sort of stopped-up-nose lisp; though not to everyone's taste, I found this sniveling characterization strangely beguiling. Jeffrey Bean brings needed dimension to the role of the stiff and repugnantly righteous Reverend Parris. Bettye Fitzpatrick's Rebecca Nurse was exactly right; she played the good woman with an ironic, easy wisdom that lifted her character far above the maddening crowd.
It's easy to see why The Crucible is such a favorite of high school English teachers, for it teaches history while providing a ready springboard for "issues" discussions. Whenever the play is produced, the inevitable comparisons are made with the McCarthy era, America's other "witch hunt" (indeed, Arthur Miller has never been shy about noting that The Crucible was meant as a metaphor for McCarthy-era America), as well as with whatever happens to be the political fracas du jour. One quickly gets the drift that this is an "important" American playwright tackling an "important" American subject. In his opening stage directions, Miller instructs rather highhandedly, "The mood must be one of high mystery, impending revelation." But although Miller constructs an intriguing and titillating weave of circumstances and personalities, ultimately we don't feel as though the revelations we receive give enough depth to all the hoopla. By the end, it begins to feel like an awful load of ranting and raving. The Crucible is not a poor play, but rather a disappointing one. We expect a bang, and receive only a clatter.
The Crucible runs through November 19 at the Alley Theatre, 15 Texas Avenue, 228-8421.