Friday, August 10, 2012

Review: (Toronto) The Crucible

William Webster, John Jarvis, Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster & Hannah Miller (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

No one can know God’s will
Sixty years on, The Crucible proves it still has much to say
by Stuart Munro

When Arthur Miller’s The Crucible opened in 1953, the reviews weren’t kind. It was felt that the production had been too stylized and cold, even though the power of the text was clear to everyone. Nonetheless, the play went on to win the Tony for best new play, and a new (better received) production the following year cemented its status as a cornerstone of the American Theatre. Last night, Soulpepper Theatre opened a new production of this landmark play, which walks that fine line between cold remoteness and powerful text.

The Crucible is a fictionalized account of the Salem Witch Trials of the late seventeenth century. Using historical figures, Miller shows us not the courtroom, but the lead up to and behind-the-scenes actions of the famous trials. An allegory for the McCarthyism of the 1950s, the play constantly pits ideology against reason, forcing its audience to ask how educated and intelligent people could possibly believe their own rhetoric.

While the specifics of Miller’s inspiration are no longer with us, there is no doubt that his message is still entirely relevant.

As mentioned above, Soulpepper’s production finds a delicate balance between a cool detachment and powerful commentary; much of the first half felt stiff and disconnected - but the nature of the dialogue and play itself demand this. We are, after all, looking at the lives of Puritans in 1690s America—a certain detachment is to be expected. Regardless, I found myself hoping things would change in the second half. This ended up being the case as the play begins to focus on three of the stronger actors on the stage: Joseph Ziegler as Deputy Governor Danforth, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster as Mary Warren, and Stuart Hughes as John Proctor. All three successfully tread the line between detached and passionate without ever falling too deeply onto either side and, as a result, managed to highlight the internal conflict both of their characters and the levels of society they each represent.

Albert Schultz’s direction is fast-paced, perhaps too much so. I’d’ve liked more of an opportunity for the weight of the text to sink in at times. But his actors use their space well, and those moments when there seem to be a dozen or so people on stage never feel cluttered. Lorenzo Savoini’s set design is a simple yet versatile wooden wall and floor which, through the use of doors and windows, manages to transport us between the various locales. This is no doubt aided by Steven Hawkins’s lighting design. Though a bit too moody at times (especially in the first scene), it absolutely helps define the space. The costumes, also by Savoini, are simple and accurate for the period. The linens of the women’s costumes seem to carry a kind of weight, and emphasize a woman’s defined and trapped role of the period.

While the specifics of Miller’s inspiration are no longer with us, there is no doubt that his message is still entirely relevant. When Deputy Governor Danforth declares “A person is either with this court or he must be utterly against it,” one immediately remembers Vic Toews saying that people “can either stand with us or with the child pornographers.” The particulars have changed, but the mentality has not. The Salem trials were the responsibility of the state and not the church, but any state that fuses its mandate with such a narrow-minded ideology cannot help but fall into the same trap. It seems this is a lesson we constantly need reminding of, and as long as that is the case The Crucible will always have a place on the stage.

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