Using the situations and hysteria surrounding the Salem witch trials, Arthur Miller's 1953 play The Crucible presents a thinly veiled criticism of Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist crusade. It's no coincidence that The Children's Hour, a play written almost twenty years earlier by Lillian Hellman (who was blacklisted after refusing to testify before McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee) enjoyed a theatrical revival just a year before Miller's play opened to similar success. Both plays focus on a vengeful adolescent girl whose lies lead to the destruction of relationships and communities. But Hellman and Miller weren't critiquing the revenge impulse in teens; both focus on the responses and responsibilities of the adults, who fall victim to mob mentality and blindly believe accusations based on flimsy evidence.
Which brings us to 2006 and the Muddy Waters Theatre Company's season of Arthur Miller plays, commencing with a troubled production of The Crucible.
A shadowy prologue shows the girls of Salem and Tituba, the maid from Barbados, dancing around an iron pot and then suddenly stopping. But before the audience can figure out what has happened, the dim lights go dimmer and the cast moves confusingly around the playing space as the stage is reset to a bedroom in the home of the Reverend Samuel Parris, where the play's first scene takes place. The prologue adds nothing but time to the already lengthy play; the event it enacts is brought up many times in the script.
Once the first scene begins, the actors do a good job establishing the various factions in the community and the main conflicts of the play. Nick Cutelli is the power-hungry Parris, anxious to keep scandal out of his house. His niece, Abigail (Hannah Eagerson), shares his desire for control and plots to get rid of Elizabeth Proctor so she can become John Proctor's wife. Farmers and businessmen squabble over land ownership, and the oppressive fist of the church is embodied by Reverend Hale (William Alverson).
But the production's weaknesses also manifest themselves in this scene. Some actors seem shaky on their lines, and the diction work is uneven. The theater is set up with audience seating on three sides, but much of the action is played facing away from many audience members. Director Cameron Ulrich also has the characters move face-to-face much too often the pose not only loses its dramatic effectiveness but also blocks the audience from seeing either actor's face.
The second scene introduces the character of Elizabeth Proctor (Patti Ulrich). Her strained dialogue with husband John (David Wassilak) reveals the tensions of a marriage damaged by a his short-lived affair with Abigail. Wassilak effectively conveys the struggle of an imperfect man trying to live a good life, and his rage when men come to arrest Elizabeth on the charge of witchcraft is heartfelt.
Act Two features one of the best-written scenes in American drama, stuffed full of character reversals. Proctor brings Mary Warren (Sarah Cannon) to court to testify that girls have been falsely accusing people of witchcraft. Cannon's complex and subtle portrayal of Warren, a simple girl stuck in a difficult situation, is compelling. Miller sets up the scene's climactic moment, when Elizabeth Proctor tells the first lie of her life and unknowingly condemns her husband, with precision; here the moment falls flat as the reactions are overlapped and chaotic, leading to a melodramatic end that is annoying instead of heartbreaking.
The injustice of the situation becomes evident to all in the final scene, as Proctor refuses to "confess" and save his life. But the final moment of the play, a swinging hangman's noose visible through the slats of a wall, is emblematic of this production's troubled choices: The image is only clearly visible to one section of the audience.
Plagued by slow pacing, particularly from the supporting cast, and ending with an overly long curtain call, this production lacks polish. Though the play remains relevant, this telling is bedeviled by sloppiness.