“We are what we always were in Salem,” John Proctor cries out in Act II of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” “but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!” Proctor (Adriano Gatto), guilty of adultery, realizes that his act unwittingly empowered the single minded girl whose dalliances with unashamed sexuality and “dark spirits” have sparked witch trials — trials that now threaten to snatch up Proctor’s long-suffering, all-forgiving, and unflinchingly truthful wife Elizabeth (Aleks Malejs). Later in the scene Proctor returns to the thought: “We are what we always were — but naked now!”
. . . masterful performances will carry away all the audience’s doubts, quibbles, and objections about this admirable production.
Proctor is talking about the witch trials. Because Arthur Miller is the author, Proctor is also talking about 1950s American anti-communist hysteria, another “crucible” in our history, which would sweep up and imperil Miller and some of his closest friends around the time of the play’s composition (1953). And because we are the audience and our year is 2017, John Proctor is also talking about the American Kangaroo Court culture and its Tweeter in Chief, where to prosecute is to hold power, to accuse is to claim privilege, and there is only safety in the transference of blame.
“The Crucible” is about all of this — “lock her up,” and loyalty oaths, and so on — and, yet, it isn’t. Though at times electrically relevant, there is something deeper than the frissons of recognition that play across our skin when we hear lines like this. The play is almost an American ur-narrative, for in plumbing the Salem witch trials and 20th century anti-communist frenzy, Miller taps into the dynamics of fear, doubt and superstition always active, if latent, in our politics; and he drives to the wellspring of insecurity in American civil relations, which probably began when John Edwards preached to us that few are saved, most are damned, and your neighbor’s heart might hold more wickedness than your own. The play’s “relevance,” then, is never the point. “We are what we always were in Salem.” Director Robert Waterhouse recognizes this, and signals — with subtle costume changes, the appearance of an ahistorical flashlight — that the play is not tied to any time or times.
This production opens with projected images of black and white bodies engaged in forest rites, played over a string-and-percussion cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” Here, Brian Millbrand’s projections and Geoffrey Tocin’s sound — at best illustrative of elements only alluded to in the text, at worst overassertive — accidentally highlight shortcomings of both the play and the production. While superficially related to the plot of “The Crucible,” “Sympathy for the Devil” treats the taboo, anti-social, destructive, and heedless sexuality that is ostensibly at the heart of John Proctor’s misdeed as well as Salem’s hysteria. (There is a Bacchae somewhere in this script.) Here the song signals what the play will not explore. The nature and dynamics of John Proctor’s relationship with his former servant Abigail Williams, and the reason Abigail and the other girls drink blood and dance naked in the woods, these thematic elements number among many — including racial othering, class and democracy, the subjection of women, Calvinism and the American character — that break the surface of the plot and dialogue but ultimately fall outside the narrow scope of Miller’s fiery focus. This is part of the reason for the play’s belabored ending, as John equivocates over declaring, signing, displaying, and “destroying” a confession: Miller comes to the end of his play and realizes he has not taken the time to understand his protagonist’s motivations.
An uneven ensemble accentuates these flaws: Some central cast members fail to dig down and discover nuance where the script gives little direction. Switching Peter Palmisano (Judge Hathorne) and David Lundy (Rev. Samuel Parris) might have yielded interesting results. Abigail Williams’ character is underdeveloped and Shelby Ehrenreich’s performance, though energetic, draws on a limited emotional palette; the same could be said of John Fredo’s Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth. That said, one of the most gripping scenes in the play comes when these two, caged, collide: Danforth feels himself losing control of the proceedings and, therefore of his political power; Williams fights to retain her precarious place at the center of the witch hunt, which is the only form of privilege her society will permit her. Fredo and Ehrenreich give outstanding performances here.
Highest honors go to the Proctors, though: Adriano Gatto (fresh off his endurance performance in Irish Classical’s “Design for Living”) powerfully embodies John, who in Miller’s script is something like a Jeffersonian yeoman farmer, a man of reason as well as fallen human passions and weaknesses, a skeptic who keeps Church and State both at arms length, and who treats people as individuals rather than members of collectives. In Gatto’s performance the yeoman hero becomes as complicated and compelling an American figure as Jefferson himself — towering, wounded, guilty, aware of his guilt, tragically resolute and tragically unresolved. Aleks Malejs likewise conveys every shade of Elizabeth Proctor’s complicated character. She becomes something like a tragic American demi-goddess — all-seeing, all-knowing, all-forgiving, but aware that these powers will be insufficient to save her husband or herself. Beside the Proctor’s woundedness and love, the trial will sometimes seem silly and incidental.
Though occasionally slow and imbalanced overall, at its emotional crescendos (which are not, usually, the play’s loudest parts), masterful performances will carry away all the audience’s doubts, quibbles, and objections about this admirable production.
Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes, 15 minute intermission.
“The Crucible” runs until November 26, 2017 and is presented at the Kavinoky Theatre. For more information, click here.