Arts Too heavy to hobble 

The Vex’s Crucible is imperfect, but Arthur Miller’s dark masterpiece shines through

Arthur Miller is the American Shakespeare. None of our other playwrights has turned out so universal, so timeless and quintessentially human a body of work. Like Shakespeare’s, Miller’s words resonate far outside the time and place from which they arose, as demonstrated by the Vexler Theatre’s production of Miller’s The Crucible.

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From left: Roy Baumgarner and Abigail Vega perform a scene from a production of The Crucible at the Jewish Community Center's Sheldon Vexler Theater. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

While director Ken Frazier’s program notes acknowledge the relevance of the ongoing persecution of “witches” in contemporary India and Africa, many less literally linked strata of history and society ring with the warning bells pealing forth from the script, which, while based on the famous Salem, Massachusetts witch craze of 1692, was in fact inspired by the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s.

Miller himself explicitly acknowledged this connection, as well as parallels with the systematic purges of the Holocaust, and those were only the obvious and topical references. Speaking of the phenomenon of the witch hunt, Marion Starkey, author of The Devil in Massachusetts, the book that convinced Miller a re-examination of events in 17th-century New England could illuminate the morass of present-day politics, said, “It has been revived on a colossal scale by replacing the medieval idea of malefic witchcraft with a pseudo-scientific concept like ‘race’ or ‘nationality,’ and by substituting for theological dissension a whole complex of warring ideologies. Accordingly the story of 1692 is of far more than antiquarian interest; it is an allegory of our times.”

That it remains an apt allegory was demonstrated at the October 27 preview performance. As Deputy Governor Danforth (played by Don Frame) argues that he cannot pardon the condemned, despite the crumbling credibility of the accusers, without casting doubt on the justification for previous actions, an audience member remarked loudly to his companion, “He sounds like Bush.”

It is a testament to the playwright that these connections are made in spite of, in this case, some distancing and distracting production problems.

The Crucible

7:30pm Thu, 8pm Sat
Through Nov 19;
2:30pm Sat, Nov 13
$15 adult; $8 student

Sheldon Vexler Theatre
12500 NW Military Hwy.

A significant challenge for actors and directors in Miller’s work, as in Shakespeare’s, is trusting the language, resisting the impulse to embellish by over-acting the exquisitely crafted and emotionally complete text. In this production, the chilling, calm righteousness of the theocracy is undercut by a great deal of bellowing and weeping, and the leering, obvious posturing of the “villains.” In addition to adding back a scene Miller excised from the published version of the play (but did include as an appendix), Frazier created a prologue and an epilogue out of whole cloth, choosing to show what Miller does a more evocative job of simply alluding to, adding running time unjustified by impact.

Archaic language provides its own set of challenges. Miller created a language for his puritans that defamiliarizes the listener just enough, and the cast in general struggles self-consciously with its rhythms. Some attempt inconsistent accents, while many indulge in that heightened, pseudo-British intonation affected by American actors doing “important” work — and Madonna. Only 16-year-old Churchill High School student Abigail Vega, who plays young Mary Warren, handles the language with confidence and ease, putting the more experienced cast members to shame with her natural, light touch.

Still, the classics become so for a reason. They are (almost) foolproof. Like a magical spell, these words hit the air and something happens. We are reminded of the desperate, fear-driven damage we do to ourselves, and we are inspired to resist that fear in a world in which, as Christopher Bigsby writes in his introduction to the Penguin edition of the script, “not only do accused witches still die, but groundless accusations are still granted credence, hysteria still claims its victims, persecution still masquerades as virtue and prejudice as piety.”

By Laurie Dietrich

More by Laurie Dietrich



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