Thursday, November 7, 2002
Photo: Hell Hath No Fury: Julie Preslar-Bell and Jeff McGrath tustle and tumble.
The Western Stage''s current production of Arthur Miller''s The Crucible comes rushing at the audience like a volcanic eruption and doesn''t stop until it has scorched viewers for nearly three hours.
To an extent, the script justifies this emotionally molten approach. Certainly the title suggests a confined setting in which elemental forces are heated to a red-hot boiling point, and Miller''s writing offers actors every opportunity to display blisteringly overwrought performances. Even so, there need to be moments in which the audience is allowed to catch its breath, to allow the horror of the play''s events to sink in, to connect with the characters on a human level. Without those moments-which are in short supply in this production directed by Lorenzo Aragon-an audience leaves the theater feeling shaken, but not quite stirred.
Written in 1953 as a parable criticizing Senator Joseph McCarthy''s House Un-American Activities Committee, the play relates the tale of the late 17th-century Salem Witch Trials. A group of young girls are caught dancing in the woods and, to avoid punishment, accuse a Barbados-born slave of luring them into acts of witchcraft. From there, things spiral out of control as dozens of citizens are accused of being witches, and many confess to avoid execution. Along the way, these citizens-fueled by a mix of righteous anger, greed and a thirst for revenge-finger more and more of their neighbors.
It''s a compelling story that''s at least as old as the Inquisition, and as new as the controversial Citizen Corps, and its even more controversial, so-called anti-terrorist Operation TIPS program.
As the connective tissue to the story, the play focuses on a love triangle between John (Jeff McGrath) and Elizabeth Proctor (Kim Saunders), and their former household helper, the teenaged Abigail Williams (Julie Preslar Bell)-who becomes the accusatory girls'' ringleader.
In this production, only Saunders'' Elizabeth comes close to showing us the vulnerability that''s so necessary to make us care about the characters. Although McGrath delivers a heroic performance as John Proctor, who refuses to confess to charges of witchcraft, and Bell offers a bewitchingly fey Abigail, neither shows us anything more than the most brittle of glimpses into the complex mix of longing, remorse and fear that fuels their actions.
The characterizations throughout the play so consistently lack a humanizing depth of character, one can only surmise that director Aragon chose to present this production as a political broadside rather than a fully nuanced drama. In that regard, the play is successful. Certainly, Aragon''s intricate staging presented on a thrust stage against Theodore Michael Dolas'' abstract, ironwork background and melodramatic lighting, makes a very watchable production. And the intensity with which Aragon has imbued the production makes it a compelling bit of theatricality.
Still, without the play''s humanizing underpinnings, and without some breaks in the intensity, it''s easy to walk away from the theater wondering if we''ve merely experienced three hours of sound and fury.