Sunday, April 30, 2017

Cloverdale Playhouse: "The Crucible"

Disclosure: the reviewer is a member of the Board of Directors of The Cloverdale Playhouse.

First-time director Sarah Adkins brings a lot to the table in her audacious post-apocalyptic production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, the playwright's 1953 response to Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist "witch hunts" that Miller set during the actual 17th Century Salem, MA witch trials.

Replete with haunting music and sound effects by Stephen Dubberley, Mike Winkelman's "in-yer-face" theatre-in-the-round staging [multi-level platforms and harsh lighting create a harrowing mis-en-scene to support the story], a team's -- led by Matthew Oliver and Mariah Reilly, with Danny Davidson and Michael Reilly -- suitably "distressed" and well-chosen costumes, and a 20-strong age-appropriate acting ensemble who create indelible characters and articulate Miller's words and ideas with enviable clarity and conviction, Ms. Adkins' directorial debut resonates long after the performance ends.

Audiences at The Crucible seem eager to continue the conversation between the Acts and after the curtain call. -- How does what happened in 1692, or in the 1950s, or [in the case of this production] in a bleakly envisioned future, impact us in 2017? -- When we see in The Crucible how religious fanaticism trumps any cogent argument, how accusations and alternative facts are proclaimed without any regard for evidential support, how entitlement comes from money or social class, how mere suspicion equates with guilt, how fear-mongering becomes intimidating through persistence in shouting down or ignoring opposing views, the correlations with the current state of affairs at home and abroad leap off the Playhouse stage and into our collective consciousness.

It is important to know that witches and witchcraft were widely believed in 1692 Salem; yet, there are some strange happenings there and across the Massachusetts Bay Colony that Miller confronts in The Crucible. -- Puritan minister Reverend Parris [Jason Morgan in a transforming characterization that is arguably a career-defining role] has seen several young girls dancing in the woods with his Barbadian slave Tituba [Meghan Ducote] and suspects their mischief may have included conjuring the devil, especially since his own daughter Betty [Frances Brown] was one of them and is now lying in bed "afflicted" and comatose. Fearing his reputation more than anything else, he has called for witchcraft expert Reverend Hale [Marcus Clement shows a complex range as his character changes allegiances] to come from nearby Beverly to detect witchcraft, and if so to destroy witches in the name of God, and prevent an outbreak of panic and hysteria.

Parris' niece Abigail Williams [Amber Baldwin, cold-hearted and despicable in the role] is the ring-leader of the girls, who is determined to maintain their innocence at all costs; she had had a brief affair with local farmer John Proctor [Kalonji Gilchrist] when she worked for him; when Proctor's wife Elizabeth [Mariah Reilly] discovered their affair, she kicked Abigail out of the house, but the younger woman refuses to be put off when Proctor says their relationship is over. -- She then takes advantage of Proctor's weakness to shift attention from the girls' conjuring in the woods by charging witchcraft on Elizabeth in order to kill her off and take her place with Proctor. -- Abigail's chief cohort, Mary Warren [Alex Rikerd is riveting in the role as her testimony will determine the results], provides a glimmer of hope when she agrees to testify on Elizabeth's behalf; but her shifting allegiances get the better of her as she succumbs to Abigail's authority.

How easy and familiarly contemporary it seems, and how quickly the fear and hysteria snowball. --  Parris is more concerned with retaining his position than with the well-being of the community he is meant to serve from the pulpit; wealthy Thomas Putnam [George Jacobsen] and his wife Ann [Elizabeth Bowles] are ready to accuse others of witchcraft as they suspect the infant-deaths of several of their children can only be explained that way. In haughty and determined characterizations, their history of winning lawsuits by dint of their wealth and social position is also a matter of contention from Giles Corey [Tom Lawson] and Francis Nurse [Bill Llewellyn]. So, whenever the truth about the girls' exploits are in danger of being revealed, Abigail leads them in "spontaneous fits" and outrageous accusations of witchcraft against Rebecca Nurse [Teri Sweeney] and several of the most respected members of the community. And our sympathies go out to them.

Yet things get even more frightening on the arrival of Judge Hathorne [Lee Bridges] and the imposing Deputy Governor Danforth [Roy Goldfinger];  a stern and practical man, Danforth is a calculating presence in Mr. Goldfinger's portrayal. Sticking to the letter if the law during the trials, he seems to favor the stature of the court and his position over justice, and refuses to examine evidence or stop the executions; he clearly is Miller's villain, since he wields life or death authority over the falsely accused but acts unfairly and unreasonably. And yet, he cannot fathom the people's fear of him and his court. Even Reverend Hale's frustrated declaration -- "I quit this court!" -- when he determines the fraudulence of the accusations and testimonies, does not deter Danforth; when Hale returns to "minister" to the condemned, Danforth is temporarily caught off guard, but tries to use Hale to his pre-determined judgments.

When Proctor tries to defend his wife against invented and circumstantial evidence, and Abigail's vengeful tantrums threaten to disrupt the proceedings, he calls her a whore, thus condemning himself as a lecher and sealing Elizabeth's fate when she lies in his defense saying she knew nothing of the affair. -- The focus of Miller's play is on the Proctors, and Mr. Gilchrist and Ms. Reilly imbue their characters' complexity and contradictions faithfully. With subtle vocal and physical changes, clarity of intentions, and impressive dignity of character, these two actors create a palpable tension in every scene they are in, and an empathy with the audience.

There are a few times when staging blocks important action from parts of the audience, and when lines are muddled or hard to hear because of intense emotions or busy stage action, but The Crucible [its three hours seem to fly by] certainly ranks high in The Cloverdale Playhouse's seasonal offerings : fine ensemble performances of a challenging and provocative script that has been given new life by Ms. Adkins -- a promising emerging director.