By David Greenham
Bedlam’s provocative production of The Crucible has a purpose — to urge us all to stand up and shout down the devils in our midst.
The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Directed by Eric Tucker. Scenic and properties designed by Lindsay Fuori. Costumes designed by Elizabeth Rocha, John Malinowski. Sound engineered by Ted Kearnan. Staged by the Nora Theatre Company, in association with Bedlam. At Central Square Theater, 450 Mass Ave, Cambridge, MA, through October 20.
We’re hunting witches again. This time the oppression comes via a co-production between the Nora Theatre Company and New York-based Bedlam. Witch-hunting, of course, is an elemental human instinct, driven by fear and the search for purity. “We shall get to the bottom of the swamp,” Deputy Governor Danforth (Joshua Wolf Coleman) promises in The Crucible‘s famous trial scene. Unless you haven’t been paying attention, the current crop of swamp drainers in Washington appear to be having just about as much success as Danforth, Reverend Hale (Eric Tucker), Reverend Samuel Parris (Randolph Curtis Rand), and the other hypocrites who inhabit Salem’s unfortunate lot. Our self-proclaimed “saviors” are knee-deep in the filth.
The Crucible is one of the few instances where the script’s history is just about as interesting as the play itself. (For some critics, it is more interesting.) The piece was written by Miller in the early ’50s, in the threatening shadow of the televised House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, which ended with the Army’s chief attorney asking ringleader Senator Joseph McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
There is very little decency on display in this rambunctious production, which is set on one end of the theater’s black box, in a space that looks suspiciously like a school gym during the ’50s. There are a couple of rows of chairs in the acting area; the production’s 13 actors, perpetual motion machines, pulsate around and about, sitting in empty seats or in the aisles. Director Eric Tucker is celebrated for interpretations of classic plays and literature that teeter on the edge of chaos. Miller’s play is the perfect vehicle for Bedlam’s anarchy. In truth, the Bedlam-ites get very close to the edge this time around. A Bedlam trademark is movement designed to be clunky and deliberate rather than smoothly naturalistic. That approach often generates compelling stage imagery. So when the dominating Reverend Parris sits in a tiny child’s rocking chair to lament “My ministry is at risk,” the juxtaposition is more than cartoonish — it illuminates his weakness.
The girls: Abigail Williams (Truett Felt), Mary Warren (Caroline Grogan), Mercy Lewis (Karina Wren), and Susanna Walcott (Eliza Rose Fletcher) fall into their destructive accusations with a kind of desperate ease. In Salem society, females possess no power — unless, of course, they actually are possessed. “The devil made me do it” is always a good excuse. Of course, the whirligig of time — particularly in a patriarchal culture — brings its revenges.
The entrance of Tucker as Reverend Hale settles this production into its paradoxical groove. His clean-cut, heart-felt concern for lost souls is razor-focused, an effective reflection of his belief that “the devil is precise.” As he accuses and condemns, the smile never leaves his face. His work inspires the others to even higher hysterical fervor. Reverend Parris hopes “we may open up the boil of all our troubles today!”
The only one who sees the truth, and has the standing to speak out, is John Proctor (Ryan Quinn). “I like not the smell of this authority,” he proclaims. Unfortunately, Proctor has a secret that he can barely admit to himself, let alone the community and its kangaroo court. He eventually tells Mary Warren that “we will slide together into our pit,” not realizing that all of Salem was already halfway in the hole before the arrival of Deputy Governor Danforth (Joshua Wolf Coleman).
Bedlam’s production runs nearly three hours (with an intermission), but it is continually unsettling, pulling off this trick by tossing aside some of the decorum that usually (even in the theater) shelters male decision makers. Tucker is at his best evoking the crazed appeal of mob mentality and opportunistic ignorance. Only a few scenes, particularly the wonderful conversations between John and Elizabeth Proctor, are reassuringly naturalistic. The rest of the staging embraces caricature and circus, with a dollop of theater of the absurd. With the inclusion of the latter (perhaps more than a dollop is needed?), this Crucible captures our current political predicament pretty effectively.
And, in the end, that’s really the point. What links the Salem witch trials, the McCarthy hearings, and America today? The existence of so many bystanders who voyeuristically watch (and sadistically enjoy the sight of) those who are targeted and destroyed. When Danforth insists that “there is fear in the country because there is a moving plot to topple Christ in the country,” it could be a warning from a Christian conservative sounding off on Fox News, urging scapegoating. Or worse, a speech to the base from the well of the House of Representatives.
True, in Cambridge, Tucker and company are preaching to the comfortable left-wing choir. But aren’t well-off liberals the ones who need to jump in? Aren’t we “normalizing” witch-hunting? Moderates are waiting for an election to save the country, while young people need to vote. In 2018 the turnout rate of 18 to 29-year-olds was 39 percent, while turnout among those 65 and older was 66 percent. Is it any wonder that our elected officials’ actions seem indifferent to the future? Or that their thinking is geriatric?
The production works well until the weaknesses of Miller’s play itself take over. The final quarter of The Crucible becomes more than a little stuck in the dramaturgical swamp. Yes, the devil is in the details — and there are a few too many of them, as Miller decides to work out his own psychological demons, at the close of this story.
Nevertheless, the cast is strong. In addition to Tucker’s stellar turn as Reverend Hale, Ryan Quinn’s John Proctor and Susannah Millonzi’s Elizabeth Proctor are the “good” pawns Miller imagined — bubbles in the puddles of foul water. Truett Felt’s Abigail navigates her rocky path of perdition with aplomb. Particularly provocative: her scene with Proctor, which is lit only by flashlights. As with any Bedlam production I’ve seen, the ensemble is hyper aware of each other at all times, passion and dramatic focus amalgamated into a kind of rough-hewn choreography.
Lindsay Genevievee Fuori’s set and properties function nimbly; a rumpus room that contains grisly weapons of power. John Malinowski’s flexible yet raw lighting is brilliant, and Ted Kearnan’s sound engineering is striking. The standout is Michael Dwan Singh’s (Ezekial Cheever) whistling. The discordant melodies are beautifully timed — and frightening.
Bedlam’s provocative production has a purpose — to urge us all to stand up and shout down the devils in our midst. As long as we treat our politics, economy, and fragile climate as a spectator sport, we are playing with fire. As Proctor warns: “God damns our kind especially, and we will burn, we will burn together!”
David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Associate Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He is the current chair of the Maine Arts Commission, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.