by Kerby Marcelin
A dramatic tour de force is marked by its timelessness. The most eminent playwrights have created works that are not only relevant to their times, but carry thematic torches that illumine social and political matters in every era. Resting on Shakespeare’s immortality wouldn’t do us any good. More than 250 years ago, in his preface to “The Plays of William Shakespeare,” English luminary Samuel Johnson wrote “[Shakespeare’s] characters are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find.” The Bard’s plays manage to have their resonance adjust accordingly to the current time, and Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” is no different.
Miller’s artistic observation is clever and bold, yet cautious. Written in 1953, he goes back 261 years to create a haunting tragedy that reflects the politics of his time. “The Crucible” comments on McCarthyism through an absorbing portrayal of the Salem witch trials. Today, this noxious dish is the main course in American politics.
From Oct. 20 to 28, director Jessi D. Hill allowed Purchase’s junior acting company to serve it in its classic form without losing the flavor of the present at the Performing Arts Center’s PepsiCo Theatre.
The emphasis on morality established early on in the play is quickly cast aside as the austere John Proctor (Brian McCormack)’s past adultery with a callous teenager, Abigail Williams (Georgia Morgan), is brought to attention. His attempt to protect his good name is wrecked by Williams, who serves as the heedless driver that ruins Proctor’s efforts to right his wrong. She accuses his wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Jimenez), of witchcraft. Fed by greed, self-preservation, and revenge, the accusations grow, with Williams conducting a sly teenage cabal to fertilize the witch-hunt.
In his mind, Deputy Governor Danforth (Colby Jamal Hollman), is fair and conscientious. In reality, his tyrannical attributes propel him to savor these baseless allegations and inflame the mass hysteria. The few sane Salemites, like Proctor and the elderly Giles Corey (Thomas Walter Booker), who resist the unjust system, are met with lies and betrayals that drag them to the gallows. When Reverend John Hale (Carson Fox Harvey), an expert on witchcraft, begins to question the basis of the accusations, he is scorned by Danforth.
Miller’s play has generated different approach in relation to time, place, and staging. After the 9/11 attacks, various directors designed it as a response to the Patriot Act and the broad fear embedded in many Americans. In the last five years, the theatrical presentation has been presented as a commentary on the separation of church and state. With the recent rise of populist nationalism in the Trump era, empty fear, alternative facts, and corruption have widened the political gap. In the court scene, Danforth says, “A person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between.” This statement echoes comments often made by the Trump administration.
Directors often alter the world of the play in order to draw relevance to their time. Hill preserves the traditional touch in her staging of the piece, however, that doesn’t obscure its significance to our time. It is chilling in the way it exposes our similarities to a puritanical community from 1692. Kaileen Langstone’s arresting seventeenth-century costumes elucidate the vision. The simplicity of William M. Anderson’s set allows the four-act classic to shift carefully, but briskly.
Hollman maintains a rigid presence on stage as the pig-headed Danforth. His disregard for facts hits home. In his stern composure and lucid delivery, McCormack portrays Proctor as a hero, tragic in his demise. Morgan’s well-carved histrionics as Williams adds amusement to the tragic evening. The gripping and blazing production is not without sprain. In certain instances, everyone is almost at a full roar. The stage begs for a tonal mélange, but refuses to arrive there without a few shakeups along the way.