The Crucible - The Nora Theatre in association with Bedlam
The Crucible – The Nora Theatre Company in association with Bedlam
Review by James Wilkinson
The Crucible is presented by The Nora Theatre Company in association with Bedlam. Written by Arthur Miller. Directed by Eric Tucker. Scenic and Properties Designer: Lindsay Genevieve Fuori. Costume Designer: Elizabeth Rocha. Lighting Designer: John Malinowski. Sound Engineer Ted Kearnan. Dramaturg: Musa Gurnis.
As I heard it, the joke is that if you meet someone who participated in high school theatre, you ask them which one they did: Our Town or The Crucible? With their large cast sizes, the two shows hold a particular appeal to drama teachers who are looking to cram as many kids on stage as possible (though I wasn’t in it, my own high school did Our Town my freshman year.) The Crucible has the added bonus of having both its plot and the circumstances it was written in as major historical moments, allowing teachers to force the rest of the student body watch as part of their lesson plan. When you first step into Central Square Theater it looks like this production of The Crucible, (from The Nora Theatre Company in association with Bedlam), is going to riff on this idea of our shared history with the play. The drab green and off-white colors on the walls suggest a high school gymnasium that’s seen better days. High up on the back wall is a mural, (one almost identical to several in my own high school), that’s been painted over but needs a few more coats before it gets completely washed away. When director Eric Tucker makes his first appearance as Reverend Hale, he looks the spitting image of your physics teacher (or, at least he does mine).
When I was leaving the theater I got the chance to examine some of the details of the set, (the scenic and property design is by Lindsay Genevieve Fuori), and the contents of a corkboard revealed that I was close, but a bit off, in my assessment of where we were. We’re not in a high school but a local community center like a YMCA. That might seem like a minor distinction, but it’s one that I think reveals what director Eric Tucker is going for with this production. If you want to get stuck in the quagmire of supplying historical context, you can go on for days about how Arthur Miller’s play about the Salem Witch Trials is an allegory for McCarthyism. But Tucker doesn’t appear interested in connecting the politics of 1600s Salem to today’s political climate. Rather, what seems to have sparked his imagination is the chance to show a community hurtling towards disintegration (which, come to think of it, might be closer to today’s political climate than I first gave it credit for). It’s a very fine production with some dizzying highs driven by the idea that the line between madness and order, between civilization and chaos isn’t nearly as thick we’d perhaps like it to be.
The sense of community is one that this production of The Crucible will build on as it goes on. When the show begins we see all of the actors frozen in a diorama set-up that resembles a Whistler painting stretched beyond the canvas. It looks and acts like a museum display set-up with mechanical dummies (our actors) that are triggered into movements when certain lines are uttered. Faced with this, it makes you worry that the story is going to be delivered as a stiff period piece but director Tucker seems to be building this box with the express purpose of giving himself something to burst out of. Bit by bit, as the community swarms young Betty’s bedroom and the first whispers of “witches” begin to be heard, the staging moves with the text, becoming more dynamic. By the end of Act 1 (Miller’s Act 1, that is), when the accusations begin to fly, a kind of glorious madness sets in that momentarily infects the whole stage.
Here, you’re pulled in by a fantastic company of actors that move as if of one collective mind. Together, they dig in and find the humanity behind their characters, managing to find a great deal more humor in Miller’s text than I would have guessed was there. Behind it all is a more serious intent. As everything in Salem goes to hell, you’ll occasionally catch them delivering lines directly to the audience as if to plead their case. “Don’t you see? I have to do this,” they seem to say. “Wouldn’t you do the same thing?” Because he’s the protagonist, most audience members will probably identify with John Proctor, (Ryan Quinn, who’s excellent here), the play’s voice of reason and held up as the man willing to die for his principles. But the scary truth (the one we don’t admit) is that most of us would find it to difficult to break away from the masses the way he does. That’s why, for me, the most affecting performance of the show ended up being Caroline Grogan as Mary Warren. In act three when Mary is threatened with the charge of witchcraft you can see her fear radiating throughout her body. The terror of an impending hanging nearly cripples her and Grogan lets us feel it. When she makes the choice that she does you can only sit, nod your head and say “Yeah, I get it.”
It’s possible that many people going to The Crucible will be going for the fireworks of the accusation scenes and Bedlam’s production certainly delivers on those. There’s a brilliant way that Tucker handles the trial scene, setting it up as the kind of town council meeting that you’d catch on public access television. At least, it starts that way. As the accusations fly and the logic of the law begins to twist this way and that, the arrangement of the scene begins to twist with it. The furniture is stacked and restacked in new configurations until you, like the characters, aren’t quite sure which way is up.
But Miller’s play is actually quite a bit more on than a few high intensity scenes. On the way to those mad scenes there’s quite a bit of dissection into the small-town mentality at play in Salem, of the petty vendettas and biases that will be exploited once the trials get underway. There’s quite a bit of information about the community that passed me by while watching Bedlam’s production. Thanks to the creative team, those bits are never boring, but they don’t land in the same way. Looking back, it was only my familiarity with the play that allowed me to connect some of the dots that Miller is laying out. It’s possible that this ends up being a fault with Miller’s work rather than with Bedlam’s production. Given how visceral those scenes are as written, how can anything else compete?
These are minor details that hardly detract from the fact that this is probably one of the better productions of The Crucible that you’re going to see. In the moments that count, it’s full of fight and vigor and becomes a kind of theater-going heaven. We’re so often told (usually by those teachers back in high school), what a great play The Crucible is. With Bedlam’s production, we get to see for ourselves.
The Crucible is presented by The Nora Theatre Company in association with Bedlam at Central Square Theatre September 12-October 13, 2019.
For tickets and more information, visit their website: www.centralsquaretheater.org
Want to be notified when new reviews are posted? Consider signing up for our Email List Here