The Crucible at The Stratford Festival
Powered by three amazing star performances, Arthur Miller’s searing drama, The Crucible, is receiving a towering production in the Stratford Festival’s Avon Theatre under the direction of actor Jonathan Goad.
The Crucible is set during the Salem, Massachusetts, witch trials of the late seventeenth century and the plot hews closely to the historical facts. But no one who saw the original production in 1953 could fail to see the parallels between the play and the contemporary witch hunt being pursued by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in Washington, DC. Just in case, Miller included narration (absent from the Stratford version) that connected the dots for them. It was the dawn of the Cold War and with Russia having joined the nuclear club, the “Red Scare” was in full bloom.
American intellectuals, especially writers, were being hauled before the HUAC to confess their past leftist leanings and “name names” of others they knew to have been once members of the Communist Party. Those named and those who refused to cooperate had their careers destroyed. It is said that Miller began work on The Crucible after his good friend, the film director, Elia Kazan, told him that he would indeed name names in his appearance before the committee. A few years after The Crucible opened, Miller’s life imitated his art. He was called before the committee, refused to name names, and was convicted of contempt, fined, and blacklisted.
In the play, John Proctor, a hardscrabble farmer, is caught up in the hysteria surrounding witchcraft in Salem. The Reverend Parris, a dour Harvard-trained churchman, sees a group of girls dancing in the woods with the Barbadian slave Tituba. The girls claim they were merely dancing, not engaging in any satanic behavior. In fact, at the instigation of their ringleader, Abigail Williams, a former servant in the Proctor household, they were attempting to put a curse on Proctor’s wife Elizabeth. It seems that Abigail and Proctor had had a brief affair, of which Proctor quickly repented. Elizabeth Proctor knew of the affair and banished Abigail from the house. Abigail believes Proctor still has feelings for her and hopes to win him back.
Rev. Parris summons Rev. Hale, a young churchman wise in the ways of the occult, to investigate and things quickly spiral out of control. As accusations of witchcraft mount, Deputy Governor Danforth, a fire-breathing religious extremist, arrives to rid Massachusetts, which was essentially a theocratic state, of this evil. Miller paints a vivid and terrifying picture of a society gone mad and in Danforth he has created a villain of mythic proportions.
Goad’s direction of a uniformly superb cast creates a level of tension and terror that becomes almost unbearable as the play progresses inexorably to its tragic end. Tim Campbell is the very model of the rock-hard frontiersman who may not be particularly devout but who has an unerring sense of right and wrong. His struggle to stay true to himself while protecting his wife is heart-rending. As his wife, Shannon Taylor provides a portrait of a love that survives the greatest possible strain.
However, it is Wayne Best’s terrifying portrait of Danforth that provides the thematic center of the play and offers the clearest warning of the dangers of religious fanaticism. Best has done yeoman’s service for the Festival for many seasons, typically taking on secondary roles. It is gratifying to see him in a role that showcases his manifest talents so brilliantly. His Danforth may be the single best performance of the Stratford season.
Solid support comes from Rylan Wilkie as Hale, who comes to realize that there is no substance to the many charges of witchcraft and pleads to stem the bloodletting. Scott Wentworth is equally good in showing how Rev. Parris unravels as the witch madness comes ever closer to home, leaving him bankrupt and subject to death threats.
Like Shakespeare, Miller had an ability to create small roles that allow good actors to create fully rounded characters and make a mark on the audience. Ijeoma Emesowum as Tituba, John Dolan as Giles Corey, and Maria Vacratsis as Rebecca Nurse make the most of the opportunity given them. And a word must be said of the director’s nine-year-old daughter, Aviva Goad, who is quite scary as Rev. Parris’ daughter Betty, who may or may not be bewitched.
The performances are so strong that it’s easy to overlook the physical production, but Michael Gianfrancesco (sets and costumes) and Bonnie Beecher (lights) have provided a stripped down and functional environment that brings the acting front and center.
The Crucible is Miller’s most-produced play. I’ve seen a few of those productions but never one as powerful and emotionally shattering at this one.
The Crucible continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until October 25, 2019. If there’s any justice in this world, it will be extended.