Russ Hunt's Reviews

The Crucible
by Arthur Miller

Saint John Theatre Company
May 2006

Of all the classic plays in the modern repertory, The Crucible seems at the moment to be the hottest. Its focus on issues around individual integrity and arbitrary power, on the conflict between moral positivism and a concern for individual human dignity, and especially on the power of fanaticism to provide a cover for greed and venality, have never been more resonant (though in fact, of course, at no time since its original creation in the midst of the McCarthy witch hunts in the fifties has it ever been exactly irrelevant).

What's particularly powerful about Arthur Miller's near-masterpiece, however,  is the sheer breadth of that relevance. This is not just a play about arbitrary power, exactly, though it's that; it's not merely a play about religious absolutism, or about hypocrisy and deceit in the corridors of power, or about the exploitation of superstition and ignorance, or about the fragility of individual lives in the face of mass hysteria.  It's about all those things, and in some strange way one of the challenges of producing it in a time when all of its concerns seem so directly relevant to our public and privates lives is to decide where to focus its energy, how to shape it to make it something other than a scattergun assault on such a range of ideas.

Or, you can do what Stephen Tobias and the Saint John Theatre Company have done, and play it for its most immediate appeal: as a straightforward human tragedy with a strong whiff of operatic excess. They begin with Patrick Clarke's simple concept of a set: essentially, the interior end of what looks rather like an aging barn, with exposed beams and plank walls, pierced here and there with plank doors and mullioned windows; and they place that set out in the middle of the vast Imperial Theatre stage. Ostentatiously, as the lights go down black curtains slowly descend to hide the exposed backstage work area on either side of the raked acting space -- now visibly small, even claustrophobic, surrounded (as Miller wanted it to be) by the misty darkness. Costumes and furnishings are all authentically late-eighteenth century colonial and rough: we're reminded regularly by the look, the stylized acting and Miller's artificial but authentic-sounding colonial dialect, that this isn't our time and isn't our place. Most importantly, the delivery of lines and gestures are all intense and melodramatic: from the opening panic about the comatose Betty Parris right through the screaming climax of Act I, as the gaggle of adolescent girls, each pinpointed by an overhead spot, yell out their overlapping accusations about all the people they've seen "with the devil," the production feels like nothing so much as an opera: a Verdi Macbeth, perhaps, with its headlong rush to destruction, its impassioned, tremendous arias, its supersized characters.

Almost everyone on stage -- especially in the first act -- seems on the verge (or just over the edge) of hysteria.  The Reverend Parris's panic about his position in the community, and how vulnerable he is to the "faction" who'd love to see him gone, especially if his family were involved in -- gasp! -- witchcraft; the Putnams, desperate to find a scapegoat for their loss of seven children, and to turn that loss to economic account; the stolid, powerful John Proctor, enraged that his servant girl, Mary Warren, has disobeyed him and run off to Salem.  And when people are not shouting in anger, frustration, panic and outrage, they're barely restrained, as when the spookily attractive Abigail Williams tries to insinuate herself back into a relationship with Proctor, and he rejects her with an odd sort of stiff disgust, or when Proctor tries, clumsily and impatiently, to rebuild the relationship with his wife which clearly was damaged beyond recall by his dalliance with Abigail; or when the young minister John Hale arrives to put his book learning and his moral certainty to public uses by bringing evil to light and punishing the wrongdoers. The hysteria and the restraint occasionally collide, as in the wonderfully operatic moment when Proctor, whip in hand, is about to discipline the errant Mary Warren, and she suddenly realizes that it is she who holds the power now, pointing at Elizabeth Proctor and saying, to stop Proctor in his tracks, "I saved her life tonight." As he freezes, we all realize that the power to accuse is now the trump card in Salem, and the question, as Proctor phrases it, has become "is the accuser always holy now?"

In spite of the overblown, operatic quality of the production (or perhaps partly because of it) , the first act achieves the powerful momentum that Miller clearly wanted, and if we lose some of the lines in the bedlam of overlapping, passionate exclamation, we gain a power that makes the more disciplined and shaped second half -- in which the noose is tightened gradually and inexorably around the victims of the hysteria -- more effective. If an amateur company is going to err in producing a play like The Crucible, it is far better to do it on the side of passion and power than on the side of discipline and restraint.

It takes many cooks, of course, to stir such a broth, and while it's impossible to mention all of them, it's worth noting that Brian Dobbelsteyn's John Proctor has just the right weight of authority: a large, normally stolid figure with enough suppressed rage to make him feel genuinely dangerous, and to make him a more genuinely tragic figure than Miller's Willy Loman. Bob Doherty's Danforth is a worthy opponent: powerfully declamatory, moving visibly from over the top oratory to flashes of visible uncertainty. Alex Goldrich makes the Reverend John Hale into just the right kind of complicated, self-questioning intellectual who can become in many ways the real tragic hero of the play.  Kizzie Kaye's Elizabeth Proctor is properly restrained and perhaps even repressed: her inability to forgive her husband's "lechery" is nicely tempered.  All four of Miller's major characters are, almost programmatically, complicated by conflicting values: we admire Proctor, but we see his weaknesses too: his inflexibility, his anger -- we believe that he could well use the whip he snatches up -- and even, perhaps, his inability to entirely escape the lure of Abigail (Elizabeth's barb hits home: "She has an arrow in you yet, John Proctor, and you know it well").  In Doherty's Danforth we see both the overwhelming rhetorical certainty -- "you must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between" -- and hear, regularly, hints of his own self-doubt, as he is nearly persuaded by Proctor's forthright confession, and then driven on -- "postponement now speaks a floundering on my part; reprieve or pardon must cast doubt upon the guilt of them that died till now" -- by the hysteria generated by Abigail and her coven.  Kaye's Elizabeth, similarly, shows us both the justly aggrieved betrayed wife and the inflexible, unforgiving judge. Proctor has some sympathy as he says to her, "You forget nothing and forgive nothing.  Learn charity, woman" -- and, of course, she does: lying about his unfaithfulness to protect him, and finally recognizing his virtues: "Do what you will. But let none be your judge.  There be no higher judge under Heaven than Proctor is! Forgive me, forgive me, John -- I never knew such goodness in the world."

But it is finally in the disintegration of the Reverend Hale -- from the self-confident popinjay who brings his books to flush out the Devil ("We shall need hard study if it comes to tracking down the Old Boy") to the broken man who returns to "do the Devil's work," to "counsel Christians they should belie themselves" by confessing in order to escape execution -- that Miller most directly dramatizes the destructive effects of the reign of terror. In Goldrich's portrayal, Hale crumbles inch by inch, and we see the increasing doubt in his face and body, growing through the interrogation of the Proctors, visible in his coming to see, during the trial the way in which venal and practical motives are driving the witch hunt ("I may shut my conscience to it no more -- private vengeance is working through this testimony!"),  reaching a climax in his "I denounce these proceedings, I quit this court!"  The Hale we encounter in the last scene is a quite different person from the one we met at Betty Parris' bedside, and Goldrich helps us to believe in his transformation.

The Crucible is a mammoth undertaking (even allowing for such cuts as the disappearance of Miller's comic relief, the voluble Sarah Good), and the production manages to create solid performances for almost every role in Miller's twenty-person cast, but, as always, the production lives or dies as a whole: ensemble is what matters, and in this case the ensemble works -- especially the pace and timing of the production: entrances and exits and the pell-mell rush of overlapping dialogue, the appearance of onlookers in scenes and their absorption into the focal action, all keep our attention focused throughout. This is no small achievement; it's easy for a production involving twenty characters to slip into a sort of pageant in which characters on stage become simply elements of the set, waiting for their lines. If there are problems with the staging (and there are; the physical struggles among characters sometimes seem perfunctory, for example), the overall focus and momentum of the production survive intact.

The play is often criticized for its confusing wealth of one-dimensional characters -- Giles Corey, the bluff, contrary farmer, the paranoid, slimy Reverend Parris, the calculating, evil Abigail Williams, the saintly Rebecca Nurse. Playing the script for melodrama, bringing out its inherent operatic qualities, subsumes those characters in a larger whole, and in the end gives us a Crucible that reminds us, again, what evil actually looks like, and how it works, and even how it's created by people rather like us.

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