Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Arthur Miller famously wrote The Crucible as an allegorical response to the Communist fishing expedition led by Sen. Joe McCarthy under the guise of the House Un-American Activities Committee—a ridiculous witch hunt if there ever was one. But the phrase “witch hunt” came from another unfortunate period in American history when people in the grip of fear and paranoia went berserk: The Salem witch trials. Americans, Miller thought, needed reminding that a toxic stew of religious righteousness, superstition, and stupidity is one of our country’s more regrettable character flaws. The Crucible was his memo to the nation, and it has been providing that reminder ever since.
I’m guessing that Joe Dowling chose The Crucible as part of his directorial finale because, on the eve of an election year, he felt we could all use a refresher course in public hysteria. From the opening scene—a Macbethian witch dance in the woods—Dowling pitches the entire production on the incredulous edge of lunacy. Practically every line is delivered with manic, mouth-foaming intensity, from Abigail Williams’ (Chloe Armao) denunciation of Goodie Proctor (Michelle O’Neill), to John Proctor’s (Erik Hager) denunciation of Abigail, to Rev. Parris’s (Bill McCallum) denunciation of everyone, to Deputy Governor Danforth’s (Stephen Yoakam) denunciation of everyone else’s denunciations. There’s plenty of righteous anger to go around, all of it fueled by the suspicion that everyone other than the person yelling is a big, fat, godless liar.
If you’re on the fence about seeing The Crucible—because, you know, it’s The Crucible—the best reason to bite the bullet for three hours is that this is not a high school or community theater production. It’s a very good (but by no means spectacular) professional production of a play that all too often gets destroyed in the hands of lesser talents. (A note for budding playwrights: If you want your work to be beloved by high-school drama teachers and ignored by professional theaters, write a play with more than 20 characters in it.) This is an iconic American play, after all, and as such it deserves more respect than it typically gets.
Dowling respects Miller so much that he did not feel the need to dress up this production with any extra fire and brimstone. The reverence here is for Miller’s language, which has a Shakespearean flavor but is really a dialect all its own. When John Proctor yells, “The little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom!” it’s a stab of truth that falls on deaf ears—as does every other reasonable thing he says. The genius of this play is how it renders the town’s hysteria simultaneously plausible and absurd. Pretzel logic twists reasonable assertions into admissions of guilt, and the more these oh-so-serious people try to unravel the mystery of their own confusion, the farther through the looking glass they go into a topsy-turvy world of suspicion and doubt, where everyone’s words are twisted in the name of truth.
In most ways, this is as straightforward a production of The Crucible as you’re ever going to see. The set features a spooky backdrop of black tree trunks, but other than that it’s just a wood floor and a few tables and chairs. Everything else is acting and stage direction. The costumes are stock, Pilgrim-era coats and hats for the men, simple dresses and bonnets for the women. Even the climactic courtroom scene, which people love to drape with demonic suggestion, is rendered as a simple discussion with the stated purpose of getting at the “truth” of the matter. As the magistrate, Stephen Yoakam rules the proceedings with arrogance of a man who knows how to get to the bottom of things. He just has no idea how deep the abyss of lies really is, so he plays the role of both authority and fool—as Joe McCarthy did during his subsequently discredited hearings.
As the 2016 election approaches, it’s worth keeping The Crucible in mind when the Republicans are demonizing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the Democrats are demonizing Republicans, and everyone is demonizing Fox News and CNN. The object lesson isn’t necessarily that the country has gone nuts, but that it’s all theater—a vast web of carefully constructed lies that, taken cumulatively, tell a different kind of truth, the clarity of which is fogged by the process itself.