PTD presents a timely staging of "The Crucible"
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible began with a class in America history when Miller was a student at the University of Michigan. The class included a segment on the Salem witch trials and Miller saw rich material for a drama that combined political, religious, and deeply personal conflicts.
He returned to the subject in the early 1950s, using the witch trials as a way to comment on the anti-Communist hearings of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. It was also an opportunity to show his rage at his friend and director Elia Kazan, who volunteered to name names of those who had any association with the Communist Party.
It’s a complex play dealing with a particular place and time while also exploring the broader view that we are not so far removed from the fanatics of Salem. Every few years offers up new examples of intolerance and repression, and an opportunity for theater groups to bring back Miller’s eloquent warning.
Community theaters are drawn to Miller’s play for many reasons. It has a large cast, it can be simply staged, and it has significant ideas.
PTD Productions in Ypsilanti and director Liz Greaves-Hoxie make an honest effort to deliver Miller’s play and spread its message.
The Crucible is set in 1692. A group of girls has been exploring dark magic and dancing in the night, raising concerns from a local clergyman when his daughter falls into a fever and his niece, Abigail, seems to be at the center of the odd behavior. To protect themselves, the young girls fake trances and begin calling out the names of local adults, mostly women, as witches.
Miller’s central character is John Proctor, a religious skeptic, who tries to keep his views to himself and go about his business. He is not a heroic figure. He is reluctant to step into the escalating witch hunt even as it leads to innocent women being hanged.
But Proctor is a guilt-laden man. He and his wife Elizabeth have a formal and chilly relationship despite having three young sons. He has been unfaithful with the much younger Abigail, who is now using the witch hunt to lure Proctor back.
Proctor is a flawed man, drawn into a situation he would rather avoid, even as it gets closer and closer to his friends and, finally, his home.
The PTD Production has some fine acting, especially in the final dramatic confrontations, personal and civil.
But the production has several key problems. Some of the costumes attempt a colonial look, but most characters are dressed in modern, inappropriate dress that is distracting. The two clergymen are dressed in the clothes of Catholic priests (not at all anti-papist Puritans). The sets are simple but confusing. A row of colored lights behind a rear stage screen is out of sync with the play’s tone. The lighting is flat and never used to dramatically highlight emotional or dramatic moments. The large cast at times seems to either stand still or move aimlessly about.
The play might have been better served by staging it as a reading rather than fully staged, with the actors dressed in simple black and white clothes.
But there are some fine performances here.
Eliza Kranz makes the Rev. Parris a thundering, flamboyant hypocrite. Parris sets the hysteria in motion. Kranz is a strong presence on the stage and conveys the subtle shift as Parris realizes the mistake he has made.
Nicholas Megahan plays the more conscience-ridden clergyman, Rev. Hale. Hale is called in as a scholar of witchcraft. Megahan gives the character the right amount of dignity and intelligence as he begins to struggle with the madness he has helped create.
The most emotionally riveting performance comes from Gwenyth Darling as Mary Warren, Proctor’s young servant girl. She is in a constant state of agitation, as she goes from a member of the condemning gaggle of girls to an uneasy witness against their lies and back again into conformity. Darling stays firmly in the emotional grip of her character. She is totally believable.
Wendy Ascione-Juska is a quietly assured Elizabeth Proctor. She is the wronged wife who also knows the wrong she’s done. Ascione-Juska is especially effective in a later quiet scene where wife and husband come to an understanding.
Krystle Dellihue as Abigail shows the girls' recklessness and her mean girls hauteur. But Abigail is a young woman ahead of her times and Dellihue also suggests there's intelligence behind the madness.
In the key role of John Proctor, Ryan McGriff emphasizes Proctor’s reticence to act more than his strength. But it is a credible interpretation and is especially effective in the final confrontation in which Miller, through Proctor, makes his claim against those who sell out others to save themselves. McGriff rises to be that reluctant hero.
The Crucible is, sadly, always timely, but it is also very much about a particular time. PTD understands the timeliness of Miller’s play but fails to realize the particulars of that long ago spring of 1692.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
"The Crucible" will continue at 8 pm May 11-13 and 16-19 at the Riverside Arts Center, 76 N. Huron, Ypsilanti. For tickets, call 734-483-7345 or visit ptdproductions.com.