Friday, September 27, 2013

IRT melts all concealment in "The Crucible"

In "The Crucible," farmer John Proctor's well-tended fields flourish under the same bright sky that spells doom for the unwary and the wavering, but eventually for God's watchful, unbending servants as well. In a fallen world, the Puritans' "city on the hill" rests on creed undermined by credulousness.

The community gathers for worship and song in "The Crucible."
The Indiana Repertory Theatre's production of Arthur Miller's historical drama opens with the fervor of "Let All Mortal Fresh Keep Silent," sung by the cast in full-throated assertion of the faith that governed life in the Massachusetts village of Salem in 1692.

The scene is a powerful reminder of the context of the play. It also pushes to one side the allegorical import of Miller's drama, famously spurred by the anti-Communist fervor of the early 1950s and the atmosphere of fear, suspicion and revenge that marred life briefly in American politics, academics and the arts.

That's all to the good when it comes to appreciating "The Crucible" many decades past the circumstances that inspired it. It's smart of director Michael Donald Edwards to focus on the rigorous faith that armed this small, homogeneous community against external hostility (natural and human) and the temptations of anarchy in the wilderness. In our far different world, Miller's play forces us to question the rightness of our values and how far we should go to assert and defend them.

Fortunately, "The Crucible" is more than a play of ideas, and this production makes central the domestic drama of John and Elizabeth Proctor. Parallel to the envy, greed and resentment that take on the protective coloring of religion is the tension between this upright couple, whose stability is shaken by John's brief, broken-off affair with the household servant Abigail. Orphaned by an Indian attack, Abigail fights against marginalization with occult games and dances in the woods, finding the worst outlet for her natural gifts of leadership by fomenting Salem's witchcraft hysteria.

All that would remain hidden comes to light as the combined power of church and state strives to keep Satan at bay. The devil enters through the back door, however, through the power of suggestion and the flawed rules of evidence that any theocracy inevitably follows. Abigail's resentment of her dismissal flowers into a determination to destroy the Proctor household. But there was a nice ambiguity in Isabel Ellison's performance that invited us to consider how susceptible she might be to her own machinations.

Certainly the power structure is a target of manipulation just as much as such hapless citizens as the litigious old farmer Giles Corey (Robert Elliott), canny in the ways of the world but overmatched by the weight of Puritan law and learning. Or, at the other extreme of life experience, the Proctors' current servant, Mary Warren (Caitlin Collins), wide-eyed and bewildered, the dangerous plaything of her predecessor Abigail.

Rob Johansen displayed the fitful anxiety of Rev. Parris, the congregation's beleaguered minister, slowly tipping over to madness as he realizes he can't defend his job if his flock is scattered and decimated. Even more conflicted is Rev. Hale,  the clergyman brought in from Beverly to investigate the untoward happenings, lugging his books onto the scene, confident that they contain the tools to defeat evil.

In Dennis Grimes' increasingly anguished portrayal, the reverend is thrown back upon a sense of justice more basic than Puritan theology. That bulwark against error was prolifically fortified in the course of the 17th century, producing tomes the scholar Perry Miller (no relation to the playwright) long ago examined in "The New England Mind." Among the many places in which analogies between "The Crucible" and McCarthyism break down is that Sen. Joseph McCarthy was a floundering moron in comparison to the rigorous intellectuals who upheld Puritan orthodoxy. Not all mass hysteria is anti-intellectual, unfortunately.

I liked the ensemble vigor of Thursday's performance. Edwards shows us a tight-knit community, subject to  the usual interpersonal difficulties but adhering to the same essential doctrines. This was evident from the simple piety of Elizabeth Proctor, so unblemished yet natural in Elizabeth Laidlaw's performance, on up to the exquisite judical hair-splitting of Deputy Governor Danforth's courtroom conduct, particularly his crucial examination of Elizabeth. Stephen Pickering portrayed a man convinced of his own rectitude and that of the system he represents, subtle in pursuing his goals and blunt about cleaving to them. He knows that the law is a method for managing facts; truth may be a byproduct, but if not, the result must still be called justice.

Danforth examines Elizabeth Proctor after commanding her husband  (left) to turn his back.
Working through his personal sense of sin against the injustice he sees developing is John Proctor, powerfully represented by Ryan Artzberger. A plainspoken man quick to sense hypocrisy and deceit in his fellows,  Proctor also bears a great moral weight.

Artzberger
has a wonderful range of strength and vulnerability ideally suited to this role. His two great flashes of intensity, one in each act, were spellbinding. They brought to mind something that long ago made me hunger for great theater: Jack Paar, as host of the old "Tonight" show, once offered a brief critique of Richard Burton's performance on Broadway as Hamlet: "Burton's eyes light up the stage," Paar marveled. I would love someday to see that kind of incandescence in the theater, I thought to myself then. Thursday night counts as one of the times I have.

The costumes had just enough variety to show marks of individuality in a community that didn't permit much deviation from the norm. Lighting and sound design verged on the bombastic, however.
I understand the motivation — to show this tiny community being convulsed by forces also at war in the cosmos — but the forcefulness of the drama didn't need quite so much underlining.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]