On Saturday I saw Good Company’s “The Crucible,” and that night I dreamed about the classic Arthur Miller play. My dream managed to incorporate the trappings of the historic Salem witch hunts into my present-day routine, which meant the staff of the Fresno Trader Joe’s somehow popped up wearing black high-necked smocks and bonnets.
According to my subconscious, at least, “The Crucible” still manages to be eminently relevant.
Every time I see this play it ends up gripping me, and this time was no exception. The GCP production at the 2nd Space left me contemplating some of the meaty “Crucible” issues that make this show timeless. We might not going around burning witches anymore, but the permutations of human hysteria seem almost endless.
The story is familiar to anyone who paid attention in high school English: a wave of witch-hunting sweeps 1692 Salem, and as the stakes grow, with neighbors condemning each other, no one is safe. As the situation unfolds we see the appeal of Miller’s iconic characters: The hard-working farmer who stands slightly apart from his more sheeplike, pious neighbors; the young woman with whom he dallies and then spurns, setting the stage for her revenge; the solid wife still smarting from betrayal.
Against this backdrop of love-triangle angst, the witch-hunting becomes a theme that can be overlaid against almost any human wave of hysteria in which people feed off each other’s baser instincts. In Miller’s time, of course, it was the McCarthy Communism blacklisting debacle. What I take away from “The Crucible” is that in any such frenzy there are clear motivations, if only you dig deep enough, among those who instigate the hysteria — or who are clever enough to jump in and take advantage of fanning the flames. But for the followers, for those who tumble in afterward into the craziness, there is often nothing but blind acceptance.
I find that blindness the most frightening of all.
Director S. Eric Day keeps the action driving forward at a brisk pace, and the quick scene changes set a lively tone. I especially like David Pearce’s stark, moody set suggesting the bare frame of a Puritan meeting house — it perfectly captures the play’s celebrated meeting of historical drama and contemporary parable — and Jennifer Sullivan’s unobtrusive but atmospheric lighting design. The whole effect is a production that pays homage to the words first and foremost, but with enough heft that it doesn’t simply seem bare bones.
In terms of acting, the large cast included some uneven performances. I can understand the occasional slip-up on lines or break in the flow. But more significantly, some of the supporting players in the crowd scenes need to up their emotional investment in the onstage proceedings. These are matters of life and death, after all, involving loved ones neighbors, and every player on this small stage has to be riveted by the action.
Jessica Knotts is strong as Abigail, the chief accuser, giving us a swirl of piety, deceit, seductiveness and downright cruelty. With a brief but telling upward glance, she starts “naming names” of suspected witches, and you sense a frightened, thrilled malevolence.
Eric Orum is a sturdy John Proctor — although he started off the show almost too low-key, almost blank — and Heather Karsevar has some nice moments as Elizabeth Proctor, the faithful wife.
But it’s Chris Carsten, as Deputy-Governor Danforth, who really puts the sizzle in this “Crucible.” Sweeping into the second act like an invading army, his brusque, commanding presence made the whole production seem more taut and compelling. Is the Deputy-Governor a true believer? He may well be. Or he could have simply found the best way to demagogue the issue, and through the power of his personality, others follow, which isn’t exactly breaking news today.
No wonder “The Crucible” still gives me semi-nightmares.