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Accused: the cast of Barrington Stage Company’s The Crucible.

Photo: Kevin Sprague

I’m Not a Witch

By James Yeara

The Crucible

By Arthur Miller, directed by Julianne Boyd

Barrington Stage Company, through Oct. 24

How do you know that you’re not a witch?”

That’s not a rebuttal to Christine O’ Donnell. It’s an offstage line heard just before the Act 3 court scene in Barrington Stage Company’s searing new production of The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s masterpiece, which remains as timely today as it was in 1953.

The historical witch hunt in Puritan Salem has always made for good allegory in Miller’s oft-produced and -studied play (it’s part of the high school American Lit canon). But despite witnessing many productions—including the 2002 Liam Neeson-Laura Linney Broadway vehicle—over the past 11 years of teaching the play, I’ve sadly found The Crucible to be better as literature studied than drama performed.

BSC’s production alters that experience with full-bodied performances and scenes that are stunning in their singularity. Though Miller did change some of the facts (not to protect the innocent, but to make a better story: Abigail Williams was a child, not a predatory 18-year-old woman with a desire that made men “sweat like stallions”), the historical connections to the actual 1692 events still resonant with the U.S. Senate witch hunts of the 1950s or with any number of subsequent “show trials.” Today, The Crucible’s lines will seem to echo Fox News propaganda, and the angry mob manipulated will sound like a Tea Party rally. It’s dramatic perfection that The Crucible ends at dawn, because the play’s themes are as au currant as tomorrow’s sunrise.

Performed before the bare timber beam frame of scenic designer David M. Barber’s meeting house/courthouse/jail (The Crucible underscores how dangerous it is when the church and state aren’t separate), BSC’s production plays out like a noose slowly tightening. Director Julianne Boyd begins her production with the casting of a spell by Salem’s teenage girls in the night woods, performed during a blackout with eerie reverb casting echoes over the exposition.

The similes, metaphors and irony all play out as one would expect in a classic onstage. Christopher Innvar is appropriately studly as John Proctor, and Kim Stauffer is a appropriately frosty as his wife, Elizabeth. Rev. Hale’s books on all things witchy and satanic are appropriately “weighty with authority,” and Mary Warren’s poppet is appropriately stuffed with straw.

But when this Crucible hits the courtroom scene in Act 3, propriety be damned. The unraveling of sanity spins along under Deputy Governor Judge Danforth’s (an exact Robert Zukerman) firm-handed renderings of his decisions to preserve the power of his court: “Say nothin’ more John,” Giles Corey (a fit and hardy Gordon Stanley) says as the men present evidence that the teenage girls were conspiring to save themselves and profit Salem’s richest man to boot, “he means to hang us all.” Danforth responds coolly,“The pure of heart need no lawyers.”

When John Proctor vies with Abigail Williams (Jessica Griffin) over Mary Warren’s (Betsy Hogg) soul, this Crucible hits its stride: “God damns all liars,” Proctor repeats in Mary’s ears while Abigail and her posse of mean girls exactly mimic, physically and vocally, Mary’s pleas that “They’re sporting,” or “I have no power,” in a scene, perfectly played by Hogg, that would fit right in the 1960s horror film Village of the Damned.

Innvar’s Proctor pulls from the dregs of his soul his most resonant line of the act, which hangs, weighty, in the air: “You are pulling Heav’n down and raising up a whore.”

The final act of this excellent production shows how far the honest and God-loving can fall at the hands of the demagogues and God-fearing. Barefoot and filthy in tattered clothes, her unwashed hair loose, Elizabeth is called to pry her husband’s confession to save his life. John Proctor is belched up from the bowels of the jailhouse, tortured, blinking, chained. They are the first Proctor coupling I’ve seen on stage who knew what lips were for. And as Proctor, struggling to find words, to remember how to speak, wrestling with the lies Judge Danforth demands, Innvar offers one of the finest acting moments I’ve seen this extraordinary talent create. This is a Crucible worth the visit, both for the timeliness of the play and the excellence of the performances.

 


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