The Crucible Brings the Salem Witch Trials to Life One More Time

The set-up:

The Houston Family Arts Center tackles the K-2 of theater, Arthur Miller's masterpiece The Crucible, where Miller re-creates the Salem witch trials of 1692 and 1693, when mass hysteria, groupthink, and deception led toward the imprisonment and execution of innocent citizens accused of witchcraft. The central character is John Proctor, not a hero, but rather an ordinary Everyman, a flawed human with weaknesses, and aware of them. The circumstances of the witchcraft hunt place him in a situation where he, and his wife Elizabeth, must make moral choices almost too difficult to contemplate. The powerful drama was first produced in 1953 on Broadway, winning the Tony Award as Best New Play.

The execution:

Bryan Reilly plays John Proctor, and finds his humanity, and honesty, and carries us with him on a taut journey as the tentacles of the hunt reach out to embroil his family. Katrina Ellsworth plays his wife Elizabeth, capturing her steely determination, yet letting us see the glowing ember of her love for John. Their chemistry together is remarkable, whether quarreling, or admitting their failures, or struggling in the web in which they are caught.

Playwright Miller gives us both a family drama and also a panoramic view of a town and a government which has gone off the rails. The play begins with the revelation that children and young women have been dancing in the woods, perhaps naked, and one child is in bed, stricken. Investigations focus on the possibility of witchcraft, and Abigail Williams (the excellent Kristen Raney) claims to have seen the devil. She becomes the spearhead of the investigation, as she accuses and names others. Such an indictment carries a terrible penalty, as those who profess their innocence, and refuse to confess, are hanged.

The narrative moves to the home of John Proctor, then to a judicial hearing room, and finally to the Salem jail. There is a cast of 20, and Miller has etched each character with skill and detail. The wittiest role is that of Giles Corey, a well-to-do farmer who is amusingly down-to-earth and a successful self-taught litigator, deftly portrayed by Gene Griesbach with buoyant charm. Entering late is Deputy-Governor Danforth, played by Jeff Brown in a commanding performance which lights up the stage and matches the power of the play.

In other major roles, Olivia Clayton is distinctive in the complex role of Mary Warren, torn between truth and survival, and J. Blanchard as the Rev. John Hale, whose faith and self-respect are undone by the unfolding events. In minor roles, outstanding performances are delivered by Rita Hughes as the warm and large-familied Rebecca Nurse, Yvonne Nelson as the less nurturing Ann Putnam, and Monique Searles as Barbados-born Tituba. A few of the actors in minor roles could use more authority in their delivery, as might Adrian Collinson in the major role of Rev. Samuel Parris. But these are ripples in the sweep of moral force that Miller has given us, as we are enveloped in the maelstrom of evil that Salem becomes.

The majestic work is directed by Lisa Garza, who clearly understands the brilliance of the play and has delivered it with appropriate pace and keen sensitivity. The entire production crew is to be commended, but I hope Garza will reconsider the need for music to accompany the beautiful and searing final scene between John and Elizabeth. Miller has given us genius, and a piano accompaniment detracts seriously from it.

The verdict:

A masterpiece from one of the towering playwrights of the 20th century is mounted with power and skill. If you have never seen this work, this production is must-see. And, if you know its dramatic strength, you will surely want to see it again.

The Crucible runs through November 10, Houston Family Arts Center at 10760 Grant Rd. For information or ticketing, call 281-685-6374 or contact www.houstonfac.com.

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