("The Crucible" plays at The Gough Street Playhouse from May 22 through June 15, 2014.)
"The Crucible" is one of the most often-produced and well-known plays in the American canon. Along with Miller's "Death of a Salesman" it is deservedly among the most studied in American schools, familiar to generations of students. Its depiction of the infamous Salem trials in which nineteen individuals were tried and hanged as witches in the year 1692 is familiar to generations of American high schoolers. Miller used this dramatic story to ask how can individuals in a community caught up in hysteria maintain their personal integrity and at what cost? These questions had special resonance in 1950s America, when Senator Joe McCarthy's House Unamerican Activities Committee was exercising its chilling influence and destorying the lives of many. The questions remain resonant today.
But such overfamiliarity creates a special challenge for any revival. Unless reconsidered with great care, its arguments may seem obvious and its drama predictable.
Director Stuart Bousel has, indeed, reconsidered with great care, and the result is a flawed but often riveting production, that makes the old story fresh. While many productions of "The Crucible" opt for a slow, majestic style of presentation, Bousel has taken an opposite tack, tearing into the first act at breakneck speed. He doesn't draw the audience slowly into this very foreign world. He just tosses us into the storm and lets the wind blow.
The plot develops with great rapidity, allowing neither the characters nor the audience to reflect on whether anything being said makes sense. It is all emotion and hysteria, fueled by superstition and fear. This is as it should be.
This approach is not without risks. Some of the language may fly by with such rapidity as to confuse the less attentive. But, emotionally, it works very well. The sense that events are spinning out of control is overwhelming. Miller's language is beautiful for its sound and poetry, and if some details are lost, we nevertheless may feel as if we've been seated in the midst of a symphony orchestra giving a full-out performance of a wild romantic movement.
A standout feature of this production is Bousel's kaleidescopic staging. By moving through the early scenes at such high speed, he is able to shift the stage picture almost continuously, blurring the line between dramatic staging and dance. His placement of actors is as carefully composed as in a painting and carries a great deal of emotional weight.
On the down side, all this excitement does not allow for another important aspect of the play to be fully in evidence: the oppressive, cold, depressing, slow moving, dreary side of puritan culture that has deadened the sensibilities of so many as to make the witch hunts possible, the unthinkable a reality.
Arthur Miller is a playwright of genius, and, as such, puts enormous demands on any director and cast. It is rare for a production to hit every note and capture every nuance. On the other hand, the material is so rich that it is difficult for any committed, intelligent company to entirely fail. As with Shakespeare, the result is most often mixed, even on the happiest of occasions. In this case, what does work is quite marvelous.
Among the other pleasures of this production are a haunting set by Stewart Lyle, lovely period costumes by Brooke Jennings, effective lighting by Williiam Campbell, and an especially haunting sound design, including original compositions, by Liz Ryder.
The capable cast offers many fine performances, with especially good work by Peter Townley as John Proctor and Juliana Lustenader as Abigail Williams.
Whatever its imperfections, this is a production that includes significant highlights and is never boring in spite of its somewhat daunting length.
Arthur Miller fans should be quite pleased.
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“The Crucible" by Arthur Miller, produced by CustomMade Theatre Company. Director: Stuart Bousel. Scenic Design: Stewart Lyle. Costume Design: Brooke Jennings. Lighting Design: William Campbell. Sound Design/Composition: Liz Ryder.
John Proctor: Peter Townley. Elizabeth Proctor: Megan Briggs. Abigail Williams: Juliana Lustenader. Reverend John Hale: Nicholas Trengove. Mary Warren: Alisha Ehrlich. Deputy Governor Danforth: Paul Jennings. Reverend Parris: Andrew Calabrese. Reverend Parris: Ron Talbot. Tituba: Jeunee Simon. Mercy Lewis/Sarah Goode: Kat Bushnell. Mrs. Putnam/Susannah Walcott: Melissa Clason. Thomas Putnam/Ezekiel Cheever: Vince Faso. Marshal Herrick: Charles Lewis III. Rebecca Nurse/Martha Corey: Carole Swann. Betty Parris: Kitty Torres. Francis Nurse/Judge Hathorne: Richard Wenzel.
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC).
Find more coverage of the San Francisco Bay Area theatre scene at www.theatrestorm.com.