Fear Factor: Bag & Baggage’s The Crucible

New production of Arthur Miller's classic turns stony period piece into present-day masterpiece

In the darkness at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre, the fear begins even before the lights go up, in a haunting unscripted addition whose impact might be severely lessened if disclosed here. Suffice it to say that Bag & Baggage Productions artistic director Scott Palmer’s bold, Blair Witchy opening gambit — while entirely in keeping with the story — instantly ratchets the tension in Arthur Miller’s half century old The Crucible to maximum immediate urgency.

In school, many of us learned that  is “an allegorical lens through which Miller examines the nature of [U. S. Senator Joseph] McCarthy’s Red Scare” via a tragedy set during the 1692 Salem witch trials, write in his program notes to the company’s new production. But while that’s true, Palmer believes the 1953 American classic is really about something much deeper, much rawer than McCarthyism or even its other obvious themes of extremism, religious tyranny, or mob mentality. Miller, writes Palmer, “is asking questions about what happens to us when we are afraid.”

Witchful thinking:

Witchful thinking: Hannah Brumley as Susannah Walcott, Arianne Jacques as Abigail Williams, Melori Mirashrafi as Betty Parris and Emily Upton as Mercy Lewis, in Bag & Baggage Productions’ The Crucible. Photo by Casey Campbell Photography.

Tying its new production to this more universal impulse helps B&B’s The Crucible maintain everything that’s always made the play powerful and memorable (despite the primacy of its fierce ideals over its relatively weak characterizations), while also imbuing it with an urgency and immediacy that make a play set during the 17th century hit hard today. Fear, unfortunately, is always a current topic — especially when so many political, religious and and other leaders lurk ever ready to exploit it.

The opening sequence’s initial tension is needed to sustain the script’s momentum through its stumbling first act, burdened by muddled motivation, Miller’s decision to use a kind of faux Colonial accent, and some clunky exposition. It’s further undermined by the short shrift the playwright gives early on to the two most compelling characters, which also deprives us of the energy radiated by the finest performances in this production, by David Heath (Judge Danforth) and the gripping Peter Schuyler (John Proctor), whose sensational performance finds a dimension often neglected in performances that play him as a too-noble, Atticus Finch-style paragon. Schuyler plays Proctor instead as flawed — irascible, contrary, near-brutal — which makes more believable both his admitted sin as a “lecher” who cheated on his ailing wife, and his ultimate sacrifice as, in part, deserved penance for that sin. As played here, Proctor is actually a darker, richer, more complex character than Miller’s script draws. And the people whose freedom of expression most needs defending aren’t the nice, easy-to-like guys who say the popular thing and hold fashionable beliefs. For our own good, we need to protect most the rights of those we dislike most: the unpopular minorities, the truth tellers, the whistleblowers.

The first act is carried by less compelling but still convincing performances from Jake Street as Rev. Hale (the outsider whose changing perception of what’s really happening in Salem provides a moral baseline to judge the ultimate outcome) and Jeremy Southard as Rev. Parris, as well as by many of the well-cast minor characters in B&B’s largest cast to date. Special plaudits go to the several Hillsboro High School students cast in supporting roles, particularly Alexandria Morgan and Madeline Ogden, who give two of the finest performances as Tituba and Mary Warren, respectively. Bag & Baggage plays a bigger role in its community than most other theaters, and it’s a special treat to see the company involving a major community institution so productively. This show, in fact, is produced “in celebration of Silverna Scott, retiring drama teacher from Hillsboro High School,” according to the program.

Unfortunately, the production can’t compensate for all the script’s shortcomings. Miller gives the linchpin role of Abigail — the mercurial adolescent (if that’s not redundant) whose accusations and manipulations fuel the action that will ultimately result in the deaths of 20 innocent people and a reign of religious terror that wouldn’t subside for another year — too few opportunities to establish the character’s diverse and often conflicting traits. Despite some spirited moments, Arianne Jacques sometimes couldn’t quite supply the requisite range: appearance of innocence to the other characters (while conveying to the audience her deceptiveness); a vulnerability and ardor that makes us believe she’d idealize and then fall in lust with someone like Proctor; and a steely yet wily manipulativeness that allows her to control the other teenage girls who corroborate her deadly fabrications. The same underwritten characterization and Jessica Geffen’s capable but similarly unrounded performance leave Proctor’s long-suffering wife Elizabeth feeling more like an archetype of feminine suffering than a real woman.

Deft Design and Direction

What really keeps us engaged until the final act fireworks commence are Palmer’s astute direction and scenic designer Megan Wilkerson’s striking set, which places offstage characters, barely visible behind a scrim, on upstage risers, staring out at the onstage action, and the audience like an implacable jury. Thanks to finely balanced, complementary lighting by Molly Stowe, the shadowy figures make us feel like we, and the small-town characters on stage, are always under surveillance, always being judged — one of the production’s up-to- the minute relevancies. Projected on to the scrim, a series of digitally manipulated woodcuts that Palmer chose from prints of the period hovers over the action, their depicted scenes both reflecting and implicitly commenting on the action. They also convey a sense of history that’s otherwise intentionally (to underscore the timelessness of the tale, no doubt) avoided by the minimal props and neutral, modern day casual costumes, all in subdued tones of grey, black and buff.

That scrim makes the stage even shallower than usual, which makes Palmer’s trademark deployment of actors in visually dynamic tableaux and arresting interactions (often placing disputing characters literally chest to chest and hand to throat) even more vital to sustaining the tension. Although he didn’t change a single line Miller wrote, Palmer also wisely used one of the playwright’s several later versions of the play which contains a short, powerful scene (often omitted in other productions) between Proctor and Abigail (which Palmer stages in the aisle in front of the stage) that adds a crucial element to the story. Some brief and appropriate Barbadian and Western sacred chants enrich the atmosphere.

Caught in the middle: Peter Schuyler, Madeline Ogden, David Heath in The Crucible.

Caught in the middle: Peter Schuyler as John Proctor, Maddie Ogden as Mary Warren and David Heath as Judge Danforth, in The Crucible. Photo by Casey Campbell Photography.

As usual, Palmer elicits committed performances from the actors, especially in the closing acts, featuring Madeline Ogden’s achingly persuasive portrait of Mary Warren’s vacillation and vulnerability, and Heath and Schuyler’s taut thrust and parry, which culminate in a wrenchingly climactic ending. We detest Warren’s spinelessness and Heath’s self-righteousness, but these deeply felt performances show us how they arise from real human feelings.

Timeless Troubles

Miller’s script proves depressingly prescient, and the playwright lived long enough to understand that it should connect to contemporary, not just historical issues. “I am not sure what The Crucible is telling people now, but I know that its paranoid center is still pumping out the same darkly attractive warning that it did in the fifties,” he wrote in an essay after working on the 1996 movie version. “But below its concerns with justice the play evokes a lethal brew of illicit sexuality, fear of the supernatural, and political manipulation, a combination not unfamiliar these days.” Murderous religious fanaticism, surveillance-induced fear and paranoia, anonymity rendered criminal, state authority trumping individual rights and truth, you’re either with us or with the terrorists … it’s all, as Palmer deduced, about fear, and it’s all there in 1953, 1692… and 2014.

But just in case we didn’t realize it, the production’s final moments feature another unscripted device designed to hammer home The Crucible’s continued relevance, as if Palmer didn’t trust his fine production or Miller’s script to make the point. To me, it felt like a heavy handed miscalculation — but my companion disagreed, and so, evidently, did many audience members who contacted Palmer after the show (he reported in a fascinating post-show talkback), questioning the relevance of the play’s themes to certain contemporary events portrayed in those final projections — “what causes fear today,” he said. Evidently, The Crucible’s lessons about the deadly power of fear still need spelling out, and Bag & Baggage’s tense new production does so unflinchingly.

In the post-show talkback, Southard noted how schoolteachers and producers often turn Miller’s modern morality play into “liturgy,” an abstract monument or decalogue rather than a living story. By focusing on the fear that motivates all the characters — even ostensible villains like Heath (who fears the loss of state authority), Parris (loss of church authority), Warren (who fears exclusion from the cool kid circles, not to mention the harsh hand of state and church power), and Abigail (who fears losing the power, in a society that grants women none, her accusations give her) — B&B’s Crucible doesn’t just engage our minds and test our morals. It clutches at our throats.

The Crucible continues through September 28 at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre, 253 E. Main Street, Hillsboro. Tickets are available online and at 503-345-9590.

One Response.

  1. I agree with the reviewer that the final unscripted image was preachy and jarring, as if the director had suddenly lost faith in the interpretive abilities of the actors and audience. It detracted from the production’s otherwise well-executed mood of otherworldliness. The Salem Witch Trials occurred in a world that, regardless of topical analogies, was NOT our own and should not be mistaken for it.

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