|Jake Street as Hale, Peter Schuyler as John Proctor, and Jessica|
Geffen as Elizabeth Proctor
By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
Ever since it was first produced in 1953, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible has been venerated as a brilliant allegory about the communist “witch hunts” of the McCarthy era. However, by casting his story in a distant past, Miller left the door open for multiple interpretations of his work. Boldly jumping across this threshold, Bag & Baggage’s current production of The Crucible turns Miller’s tale into an exposé of the dangers society faces when politics and (any) religion are too closely allied. Director Scott Palmer achieves this feat while remaining faithful to the original script – it is not the words, but the ambience, that telegraphs the updated message to the audience.
For those who do not know the show, it is a fictionalized account of events in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 when over a six-month period hundreds were imprisoned and nineteen people hung for the crime of witchcraft. All of the characters were real people, although Miller takes extensive liberties with key details, framing his story as a tale of adultery, jealousy, and revenge.
The story revolves around three characters. John Proctor is a pragmatic farmer who has committed and now repents of the sin of adultery with Abigail Williams, a Puritan Lolita obsessed with her erstwhile lover and employer. The third cog is Elizabeth Proctor, the cold, upright, and scrupulously honest victim of her husband’s infidelity. Arianne Jacques brings a venomous complexity to the role of Abigail – sometimes pathetically needy, but always with an undertone of fury and violence against any who oppose her will. Peter Schuyler (“John Proctor”) fluctuates believably between shame, anger, frustration, fear (of losing his honor, his wife, his life), and in the final scene powerfully demonstrates the character’s core of inner strength and loyalty. Jessica Geffen’s performance as Elizabeth Proctor is truly exceptional – her icy tenderness toward her husband leaves him, ultimately, with no choice but to die for his good name.
Other outstanding performances include Jake Street, who captures Reverend Hale’s growing unease with the proceedings of the authorities, and David Heath (“Judge Danforth”) whose angular features and clipped delivery mirror the rigidity of his character’s circular and impenetrable logic. While Pat Lach (“Rebecca Nurse”) has relatively little stage time, she heartbreakingly expresses the upright innocence of a good woman, strong in her beliefs and unwavering in her commitment to the truth.
The young girls in the Salem community are all played by local high school students as part of a Bag & Baggage internship program. These fine young thespians have studied with the troupe’s professional actors, and their performances reflect the quality of their tutelage. Madeline Ogden (“Mary Warren”) is superb in her pivotal role, riding the roller coaster of her character’s many emotional transformations with passion and a clear understanding of the part. Alexandria Morgan consistently captures the accent of the slave Tituba’s native Barbados, and she understands the fine line Tituba must walk in order to save her skin.
One of Director Palmer’s most effective strategies for highlighting The Crucible’s contemporary relevance is through costume (he eschews stereotypical Puritan garb for clothing that is simple enough to complement the styles of the period, but contemporary enough that these characters cannot be dismissed as “the other”). His choice of minimalist sets (a single row of upright wooden chairs moved about as needed) is augmented by a media presentation including the expected (forest, scaffolds, nooses) and the unexpected (modern images of hate crimes engendered by religious extremists of all stripes). Although it is a long show, we applaud Palmer’s decision to include the oft-deleted Act II, Scene 2, which makes it clear that there is no truth to the hysterical allegations of the oppressors. This Crucible is more than just a fine production, it is a powerful plea for tolerance and reason that is needed as much today as at any time in history.
The Crucible runs through Sunday, September 28th with shows Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 and Sunday matinees at 2:00. All performances are at the Venetian Theatre, 253 E. Main Street, Hillsboro.