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Arts and Entertainment Tuesday, Sep. 5, 2017 4 years ago

Theater review: 'The Crucible'

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Arthur Miller’s 'The Crucible' shines a light on the banality of evil.
by: Marty Fugate Contributor

The McCarthy era’s search for covert communists was labeled a witch-hunt. In 1953, Arthur Miller responded with “The Crucible”—a play about a literal witch-hunt. It’s now on stage at The Players Centre in a Two Chairs Theatre Company production.

“There are ways of telling whether she is a witch.”

—Monty Python and the Holy Grail

The story unfolds in 17th-century Salem, Mas. The Rev. Parris (Paul Hutchison), the town’s Puritan preacher, takes a walk in the forest. Much to his shock, he stumbles on a circle of dancing women. These include Tituba (Kimberland Jackson), Parris’ slave from Barbados, his daughter Betty (Kassandra Moore) and niece Abigail (Brianna Larson). Caught in the act, Betty collapses in fear. Back home, she won’t get out of bed. The reverend tries to keep the incident quiet, but rumors of the pagan ritual ripple through the town. All that dancing smells like devilment to the good Puritans! Investigators start sniffing. (Both magistrates and ministers. The colony’s theocratic society blurs church and state.) Abigail shifts the blame to Satan — and his many secret followers in Salem. Evidently, a whole lot of seemingly good people are dancing with the devil! Abigail starts naming names — mostly women. The other accused girls follow her lead. The long list grows; the witch-hunt spreads like wildfire.

The bulk of the play’s second act is a Kafkaesque courtroom drama. The witch-trial is an obvious stand-in for the HUAC and Army-McCarthy hearings of the 1950s. Mere accusation could get you black-listed and ruin your life. Guilty or not, the wise thing to do was confess and name somebody else.

Under Elliott Raines’ direction, the witch-hunters resemble Michael Palin’s character in Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil”— a perfectly nice chap who loves his family and tortures people for a living. Raines’ bad guys think they’re the good guys. Which makes them all the more terrifying.

The director’s approach honors the playwright’s intent. Miller’s play is free of strawmen. His witch-hunting Puritans aren’t a lynch mob of superstitious peasants; they’re well educated and well fed. In their minds, they’re pushing back the devil’s invasion. They think they’re doing the right thing — based on clear-eyed logic.

Just to be clear: They’re doing the wrong thing — based on lousy reasoning. (You mumbled. My pig died. You cursed my pig. QED.) It’s lunacy in reason’s clothing. But not always …

Irrationality can also be rationalization. Abigail’s pagan dance was intended to curse the wife of a man she’d an affair with. Rich landowner Thomas Putnam is accusing his neighbors left and right — and snatching up their land once they hang. Despite evidence to the contrary, Deputy Gov. Danforth (Allen Kretschmar) sends scores of innocent people to the gallows. Beneath the Bible-thumping, his true motive is contemptible. He doesn’t want to admit to being hoodwinked by teenaged girls.

It’s a large-cast production. Here are a few highlights from the many strong performances:

Paul Hutchison’s two-faced Rev. Parris is more concerned with keeping up appearances than keeping the faith. In contrast, Douglas Jones Rev. Hale is a man of integrity, however misguided. He has a heart, and in the end he has a gutsy change of heart. Kretschmar’s Danforth is a bureaucratic bully; the banality of evil, made flesh.

Brianna Larson’s Abigail is a real live wire. In our century, her character’s raw sexuality and acting skills would earn her a show on HBO. Kevin Sario’s John Proctor is a decent guy — except for that one brief affair with crazy Abby. (And boy does he pay for it.) Carrie McQueen’s Elizabeth is too good for her own good. She thinks she forgave her husband, but she really never did. Their final reconciliation has a heavy price. Lauren Ward’s Mary Warren is a sweet, girl — and nearly brave enough to admit being part of a murderous hoax.

It’s a shattering tale, beautifully told. Miller’s grasp of language and character hits Shakespearean heights. That grasp gives his play staying power. The HUAC hearings are long gone, but “The Crucible” still resonates in a new century. For very depressing reasons …

The True Believers are still with us. Millions of them.

Some believe 9-11 was a hoax; the Earth is flat; a secret global elite is filling the atmosphere with chem-trails; and every mass murder is a false flag operation. Others think Hitler had the right idea. It takes all kinds.

Whatever their deranged persuasion, the True Believers still gather in the public square — and occasionally hurt people in real life. Most of the time, you’ll find them on the internet. They hurt people there, too.

The 21st-century witch-hunt never stops.

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