The Crucible burns brightly at The Arts Project
- Written by Susan Scott
Written by Arthur Miller
Produced by Passionfool Theatre
The Arts Project, 203 Dundas Street
November 9-10, 14-17, 21-24 at 8:00 pm and November 11 at 2:00 pm
There are many times in history when man’s darker side has been given murderous reign. One is the Salem Witch Trials that took place from 1692 to 1693 in colonial Massachusetts. During a brief fit of paranoia, 19 people were hanged as witches, one 71-year-old was pressed to death by heavy stones, and several died in jail. In total, nearly 200 men and women stood accused of practicing “the Devil’s magic.”
Fast-forward to the 1950s when Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy held the U.S. in his iron grip. During a modern-day fit of paranoia, his House of Un-American Activities Committee accused thousands of Americans of being Communists or communist sympathizers. Because of the Committee’s aggressive investigations and questioning, McCarthyism became synonymous with making accusations of disloyalty, subversion, or treason without evidence.
In his now-classic play The Crucible, written in 1953, renowned playwright Arthur Miller brings The Salem Witch Trials to life again with all their horror and moral murkiness. He uses this period as a metaphor for McCarthyism and a vehicle to show the consequences of rabid ideology. Miller’s first-hand experience with McCarthyism gives the play its singular nuance and power. While it is firmly rooted in the far past and near past, the story is extremely relevant in today’s world as well.
Passionfool Theatre’s version of The Crucible, directed by Justin Quesnelle, is a masterful production that is, from the opening scene to the dramatic end, pitch-perfect in its intensity. There is an honesty and integrity about this play and this production that is, simply put, magical. It is theatre at its best.
The Crucible tells the tale of 19 individuals who become entangled in events beyond their control after four girls are found in the woods, behaving strangely. Accusations of witchcraft ignite an all-consuming blaze, fed by fear, self-interest, and greed. While the characters are based on real people, and their fates in the story are those actually suffered, the particular circumstances and moral quandaries are Miller’s constructs. Through the characters, he shows how easily the world can be turned upside-down by ideology-gone-wild. When lying will save your life and telling the truth will lead to the hangman’s noose.
With 19 characters, The Crucible is undeniably an ensemble piece, and like most ensembles some actors are stronger than others. However, in this production the key actors all have the necessary strength and talent to successfully convey the complexities of their roles.
Take Chris Kevill (photo above) who plays the hero, John Proctor, exceptionally well. Proctor is a farmer with many human failings, including seduction of a young servant and passivity when his vengeful wife fires her. He confesses he still has “soft feelings” for the girl, Abigail, then renounces her. When Abigail seeks revenge by accusing his wife of being a witch, the guilt-ridden Proctor tries to expose her fraudulent claim. To his horror, accusations of witchcraft spread like wildfire and engulf others in the community. Kevill skilfully portrays Procter’s moral ambiguities, from his weaknesses through to his essential integrity. He is an incredibly physical actor and his character’s emotional anguish is expressed in every sinew.
At the other end of the scale is the protagonist, Governor Danforth, played with stellar authority by David Wasse (photo below). Danforth is an educated, intelligent man of absolute, unassailable conviction. He comes to Salem to punish those proven in court to be witches. There is no doubt that he is a man of integrity. He not only wants to know the truth, he needs to know it. But Danforth’s flaw is that he believes accusation equals guilt and he doesn’t understand that the fear he wields distorts the truth he seeks. Wasse’s portrayal of Danforth is so intense that you almost quiver during his relentless interrogations.
Eva Blahut as Elizabeth, the wronged wife and accused witch, also gives a remarkable performance. In contrast to the men in the play, who carry much of the emotional drama, her performance is exquisitely understated. Blahut takes Elizabeth on a convincing journey from bitterness to resignation to forgiveness, and one scene with her husband is so moving it brings tears.
Chris McAuley as Reverend Parris, who relishes the charges of witchcraft then recoils at the ghastly consequences, gives a commendable performance as well. So do Bill Meaden as Giles Corey, Jeff Werkmeister as Reverend Hale, and Sarah C. E. Stanton as Mary Warren.
Passionfool’s production of The Crucible is not only noteworthy for the quality of its acting but for its set and costumes. The set is spare – a black backdrop, wood floor made of pallets, pine table and chairs, and bare light bulbs. The audience sits in two tiers along two sides of the set, which turns them from observers to quasi-jurors during the court scene. Before the opening act, a single seated figure on-stage lights a series of matches, setting the olfactory mood of fire mingling with the scent of wood. The music too supports the temper of the play.
While the set is emblematic of colonial America, the metaphorical reference to the modern era is conveyed through the use of every-day clothing. All the actors are dressed in black and grey, with occasional, symbolic shots of white. The costumes are so muted and subtle that they barely register. The focus is entirely on the characters and the unfolding drama.
With The Crucible, Passionfool Theatre is at the top of its game, and they deserve credit for bringing Miller’s play to London. It is not only worth seeing this play, it is necessary to see it. While it portrays the tragic events that took place in the 1600s and references the events of the 1950s, it is chillingly relevant to today. When Internet sites encourage anonymous accusations that are repeated and re-tweeted, mass hysteria and persecution are not far behind. Unless we learn from the past, the past will be the future.
Susan Scott is an arts writer and visual artist. Her drawings are on display at www.londonarts.ca.
Photos by Echo Gardiner.