Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Stephen Thorne and Angela Brazil in The Crucible.
These days it seems it's Miller time on American stages. That's Arthur Miller I'm talking about, the once-celebrated writer of Death of a Salesman, All Our Sons, and other earnest contemplations of American politics, money and immorality. Our new playwrights studiously avoid that kind of thing, of course, so - how to put this - they're not much use in the current political environment.

But Miller's sturdy melodramas (okay, maybe they're tragedies, I certainly don't mind if you call them that!) once again seem startlingly apropos, and are popping up in theatres across the country. Because guess what - the corruption of the Iraq War wasn't all that different from the seamier side of World War II (All My Sons).  And every day the greedy, self-absorbed boomer generation looks more and more like Willy Loman (Death of a Salesman).

And then there's The Crucible (now at Trinity Rep through March 13), Miller's lengthy contemplation of the Salem witch trials.  Once thought a metaphor for the McCarthy "witch hunts," (and specifically, a critique of Elia Kazan's famous naming of names to HUAC), it now resonates with parallels to the mob mentality of the Tea Party and Fox News.

Trinity doesn't press this angle, however (although a few bleached-blonde news anchors breathlessly reporting the latest from Salem might have been fun).  Instead director Brian McEleney (who after Twelfth Night and Absurd Person Singular has begun to look like Trinity's most reliable director, and perhaps its next artistic director) allows us to draw our own parallels with the present day, even if it's very present in Eugene Lee's ingenious set, which fills the Chace Theater with a huge blow-up of Providence City Hall.  Before this suggestive backdrop, on bare wooden platforms, McEleney offers a bare-bones take on Miller's script - which, as you'd expect, highlights both its strengths and weaknesses.

For while The Crucible may have become a high-school classic, it's not quite in the same league as All My Sons or Death of a Salesman.  It's longer and preachier than either of those, and Miller can't help but insinuate a 50's-era sexual soap opera (between John Proctor and Abigail Williams) into proceedings that might have been more gripping if they had simply hewed closely to the frighteningly inexplicable historical record.  To me, the Salem witch trials are terrifying because they're not melodramatic; they depend, instead, on the cold, calculated malice of the childish and the religious - aided and abetted by the machinations of those who saw in their cobbled-together kangaroo courts a way to attack, or even exterminate, their personal enemies.

As long as Miller keeps these facts in his sights, however, The Crucible is gripping - in fact it's certainly the most gripping script I've seen this season, and for the usual reasons - the stakes are high, the characters compelling, the writing clean and clear.  And the Trinity actors manage well across the many roles most of them have to play (the cast is huge).  Still, only perhaps Angela Brazil (as Elizabeth Proctor) is working close to the top of her form.  Stephen Thorne makes a sympathetic, but slightly flat, John Proctor, and newcomer Olivia D'Ambrosio sometimes hyperventilates as Abigail Williams.  Indeed, many in the cast tend to get a bit shouty - Fred Sullivan, Jr., could work more subtlety into his bullying Deputy Governor Danforth, and the usually dependable Rachael Warren I think could make Mary Warren a bit more of a mouse.  Better are Mauro Hantman, as the slowly disillusioned John Hale, and Terrell Donnell Sledge, who gives an eloquent simplicity to Giles Corey, the man who was pressed to death rather than confess.

Still, even if imperfect, this Crucible struck me as a kind of tonic after much of the pseudo-political theatre I've endured recently.  It's certainly stronger than anything on the boards in Boston proper right now, and I urge you to make the trek to Providence to catch it while you can.

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