The Crucible ensemble. Photo by Cylla von TiedemannReviewed by James Karas
**** (out of five)
In 1952, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible premiered in New York. It is a play ostensibly, about the witch-hunt trials that took place in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. In a hysterical search for the devil, people were arrested, tortured, convicted and hanged for practicing witchcraft or associating with Satan.
The play was written during the height of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings, the witch-hunt for Communists, headed by Senator Joseph McCarthy. The Devil of Salem had become the Communist Devil of America and countless lives were ruined because of their association, real or imagined, with “him”.
Many people may not be aware of the association between The Crucible and the political background in which it was written but that should be no bar to enjoying the superb production by Soulpepper Theatre Company.
Albert Schultz meticulously directs a fine cast and lets the drama unfold from a seemingly insignificant incident of some girls dancing in the woods to mass hysteria where good and evil clash and all the perpetrators are convinced that they are on the side of God.
The central character is John Proctor, a rough-hewn farmer with a rather cold wife. Stuart Hughes plays Proctor as a virile, pragmatic, sensible man who tows the religious line sufficiently to stay on the right side of the church but harbours some doubts about and has an antipathy to, the village pastor, the Reverend Parris (Derek Boyes).
When the young girls become hysterical and start accusing townspeople of being associated with the Devil, the frenzy infects everyone from Deputy Governor Danforth (Joseph Ziegler) to many of the local farmers. Proctor is accused of plowing on Sundays, not attending church regularly and of being “lecherous” with his former servant Abigail (Hannah Miller).
In a powerful performance, Hughes as Proctor is ready to “confess” his association with the devil until he realizes that by doing so he will be stripped of his “name”, indeed of his humanity.
The most interesting part of the play is not the existence of selfish and evil people who want to take advantage of others but he high-minded search for Justice by people of intelligence and learning. The Deputy Governor and The Reverend John Hale (Oliver Dennis) are not evil people. They genuinely believe that there is a devil who must be found and he must be driven out for the salvation of the people. No matter how many people are tortured and hanged. God’s will shall be done, according to these high-minded Christians.
Oliver Dennis as Hale is a decent man who wants to do good until he realizes that what is at work in Salem is not the search for the extirpation of Satan but the working of the worst human traits. Dennis conveys the initial enthusiasm and final realization by Hale with superb skill.
Ziegler as Danforth displays some of the same traits but he never realizes what people are capable of. He may be close to God but he has no idea of what His creatures can do to each other.
Notably good acting is displayed by Derek Boyes as the small-minded, nasty Reverend Parris, William Webster as the decent farmer and especially by Nancy Palk as Rebecca Nurse, an extraordinarily humane and courageous old woman in a society that is tragically short of both virtues.
The individual performances deserve praise but the real applause belongs to them for their ensemble acting. The Crucible has a large cast and it must be shepherded scrupulously towards the dramatic climax. The effect is electrifying.
The costumes by Lorenzo Savoini are adequate and the set is minimalist, to put it politely. Once the drama starts building up, you forget about sets and costumes but at the beginning it looked as if the play was happening inside or outside of a barn.
A couple more facts. In 1956, Arthur Miller was summoned before HUAC and asked to snitch on his friends and acquaintances who may had had Communist associations. He refused and was sentenced to one month in jail and fined $500.00. Had the Committee seen the play?
The judges of the Massachusetts General Court seem to have been better read or more humane. In 1957, they passed a resolution that many of those executed for witchcraft in 1692 may have been tried and executed illegally. Finally, in 2001, the Governor of Massachusetts declared that all victims of the witchcraft trials were innocent!
The Crucible by Arthur Miller opened on August 9 and will continue in repertory until September 22, 2012 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca 416 866-8666.