Think The Crucible is just some wordy historical piece about a group of quaint and superstitious farm folk worried about witchcraft in 1690s Massachusetts?
In the hands of director Ryan Mooney and a large and committed cast, White Rock Players Club’s The Crucible succeeds as riveting, must-see drama, as compelling, relevant – and accessible – as any cable or network TV hit.
Part of this currency lies in Mooney’s decision to set the show in a dystopian near-future rather than in a cozily-concocted past. The metal fences and structures of Matthew Davenport’s set, Pat McLean’s semi-uniform costumes and an electronic-industrial soundscape make sure we know this play is talking directly to us, rather than simply wondering at the ‘primitive’ superstition of a bygone era.
Playwright Arthur Miller’s retelling of the Salem Witch Trials – and a God-fearing community’s response to the “abnormal” behaviour of a group of adolescent girls – has always been about a lot more than that.
Miller shows us a Salem turned inside out by fear, greed and lust and the pompous, self-righteous certainties of political, religious and judicial systems. His picture of a broken society – in which wrong becomes right in an avowed desire to ‘protect’ the people – hits very close to home for anyone struggling to make sense of life in the year 2013.
Once Mooney and his players have made the point that the situations of the play are essentially timeless, details of setting quickly become irrelevant. What counts most in this production is Miller’s script and a director and cast capable of bringing out its multiple levels.
The 60-year-old play is all the more impressive today because Miller – although subject to the political witch hunts of his own time – wrote not as a propagandist but as a man of compassion. The brilliance of his writing is that he has given us characters drawn not in black and white but in a series of greys. Even those we choose to see as ‘the bad guys’ are behaving entirely logically within their own precepts of wrong and right.
The show’s many twists and turns are consistently interesting for the audience because he has given the actors multi-faceted characters to work with.
Rebekah McEwen delivers a very genuine, well-nuanced performance as the confused, angry and scared Elizabeth Proctor, who begins to see a design in the accusations that envelop her and her farmer husband, John (J.C. Roy).
While Roy’s body language at times seems a little too stiff and stolid for John, he brings out all of the emotions of a flawed but eminently sensible man, increasingly out of his depth in a hysterical situation. And his chemistry with McEwen ensures the couple’s relationship seems real and, ultimately, very touching.
The young actors assigned to the roles of the supposedly ‘bewitched’ girls – including Brittany Vesterback, Jenna Grubagh and Celeste Taylor – also contribute to the success of the show with believable performances, although in some places one might like to see some more of the thought processes that drive their frightened actions.
As Abigail Williams, the teenager formerly employed by the Proctors who dominates the group, Rebecca Strom wisely resists the temptation to be merely shrill, and in her scene – and chemistry – with Roy, amply suggests the underlying emotions, and history, that give dimension to the role.
Julie Casselman also succeeds nicely in portraying the turmoil of Mary Warren, the Proctors’ new serving girl – caught in an emotional tug-of-war between the reason of Proctor and the influence of Abigail.
Tom Gage does fine work as John Hale, showing us both the reverend’s well-intentioned eagerness to investigate the apparent bewitching, and his palpable anguish as he comes to realize the damage he has done in the community.
Excellent work, too by mellifluous-voiced Ken Fynn as deputy governor Danforth, whose unyielding devotion to rules and regulations plunges Salem into chaos, and Tim Driscoll as presiding Judge Hathorne, a man whose sole satisfaction seems to be the exercise of his authority.
Also bringing out all of the aspects of the tragedy are strong performances by Mike Busswood as aging, rough-and-ready Giles Corey, Proctor’s steadfast ally; Jane Mantle as Ann Putnam, who bitterly blames the loss of seven of her babies on witchcraft; and Dave Carroll as her husband, Thomas Putnam, whose brooding resentments fuel a desire to take financial advantage of the situation.
Good performances too, from Dann Wilhelm as Reverend Parris, who places fear of losing his own position in the community ahead of common sense; and Scott Farkvam as Cheever, who doesn’t hesitate to provide incriminating evidence out of misplaced zeal.
In smaller, but no less important, roles, Margaret Shearman, Paula Spurr, Tarrah Tanaka, Heather Harris and Josh Fuller all have their moments to shine and contribute to an overall portrait of a community in free-fall.
The Crucible runs until Oct. 26 at Coast Capital Playhouse.