the better truth

the better truth

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Crucible (2013 Lost Nation Theater Production)

Pride and Prejudice

60 years ago Arthur Miller wrote a play called “The Crucible” addressing the national turmoil born of post WWII anti-communist crusades. It was based on the witchcraft trials that occurred in New England 260 years earlier. Lost Nation Theater’s production of this work stands the test of time. Many theatrical ‘standards’ that feature social justice are performed based on the sheer momentum of their legacy rather than contemporary relevance. Here are two examples: “To Kill A Mockingbird” seems locked in a simpler pre-1960s American landscape. It delivers a pat, one dimensional portrait of small town racial justice. “Hair”, the radical parable about non-conformity, is a solid period piece that has little relevance to a over-indebted, over-burdened, over connected younger generation.  Miller’s work is exceptional as it manages to make the upheavals of a small 16th century Massachusetts village uncomfortably contemporary. Just this week the authorities in Alabama considered bringing charges against a 15 year old for streaking during a football game. What raised the ire of the local police were the online accolades from his classmates. The powers that be decided to ‘get tough’ with a fierce prosecution.  The prospect of being a registered sex offender was too much for the boy... he hung himself. (see story - ) It is not a direct parallel to Salem but it speaks to Miller’s nightmare of arrogant officials using the state to crush desperate innocents.

Regional Theater is sometimes belittled by city-folk as delivering dull imitations of formally grand works. This type of attitude misunderstands the role of these institutions. They are the guardians of what is accepted in the cannon of ‘great plays’. Although sub-standard performances might haunt some areas, Vermont is blessed with Lost Nation Theater in Montpelier. This is an organization that delivers quality productions of ‘classic’ works. A straightforward rendering of “The Crucible” might seem pedestrian to an urbanite. City-folk often fall into this pit of believing successful art relies solely on radical innovation. Regional theater sets standards in favor of ‘cutting edge’ gimmicks.  These institutions are the only avenue for most non-city dwellers to witness professional actors perform in live settings. This requires the productions to be somewhat formal in presentation rather than attempting to break barriers.  That is not to say the works are musty museum pieces. This rendering of “The Crucible” included the, usually omitted, scene in the woods where the girls are dancing. This was a solid decision as the free-standing openness of the woods stood in  stark contrast to the intense four walled ‘crucibles‘ that the rest of the action is confined.  In addition the choice of converting the seating to a ‘theater in the round’ arrangement, made one feel as ‘a juror’ taking in all the angles and realizing fellow audience members have a different POV. An excellent choice as this play is really a extraordinary court-room drama. Your view is, literally, not your neighbors.  The blocking, lighting and set design served the story and combined with a first rate cast to deliver the goods. I felt a tear well up inside when John Proctor spoke of the value of his name in the closing scene.  I can think of no better ‘test‘ in judging the success of this particular work.  On a minor note the stage smoke gave a grave eeriness to the drama but as the action became clearer the mist should have taken the same cue. This is a small matter as the entire artistic team worked in unison to illustrate the horror when private wars are given the imprimatur of the state.

The ensemble nature of this play gives the greatest challenge to a small scale professional production. There are 21 performers in the cast.  Miller’s writing has a clockwork symmetry so each role holds the drama in place. The Rebecca Nurse character has very few lines but the central action of the play revolves around her believability.  If she fails to have enough righteous gravitas, the motivation of John Proctor and Reverend Hale is unconvincing. They see her as a beacon of piety, which informs their actions.  The same is true of Abigail’s hold over the courtroom proceedings. This is someone who, while playing a teenage girl, must intimidate, not only her sorority, but an a number of seasoned elderly judges.  In other words the town’s madness centers on her abilities as a nefarious ringleader. Once again kudos to the producers at Lost Nation as the cast created a perfect ensemble of terror.  Everyone hit their marks AS A TEAM.  The seasoned lead actor, Paul Riopelle, who played John Proctor, interacted brilliantly with his spouse Kathleen Keenan.  Abigail, played by Katelyn Manfre, portrays her ability to dominate everyone; with the exception of her love interest, Proctor. Although some of the cast was more experienced, noone stole the show. Although grandstanding might suit some plays this particular work relies on the group. If one star is too bright it undercuts the universal theme that evil acts in concert. It is a roaring cauldron of rage; rather than a bright beacon.

This is a play about the tyranny of small rivalries that are given weight by what Shakespeare referred to as “The insolence of office”.  “The Crucible” is the nightmare version of “The Emperor's New Clothes”. Truth is subverted by the pride of failing to admit obvious wrong combined with obsequious bending to authority. Each faction plays out their petty grievances in a minutely choreographed dance leading to the undoing of everyone. In the entire ensemble is metaphorically “pressed”. This is the old English practice of crushing people to death with heavy objects. It was reserved for those who failed to recognize the righteousness of the court. They refused to answer “Guilty” or “Not Guilty” - rendering the proceeding impotent.  The entire cast is forced into the position of collectively failing the deference test. Miller plays this theme in a manner akin to a Bach fugue with an endless repetition of the question “when is it appropriate to submit?”. The genius of the work is that the ‘good’ people are as prideful as the ‘evil’.  This is not to make a moral equivalence: the feckless toady neighbors are bad  and John Proctor is the paradigm  of a great citizen. Abigail is a sociopath and Rebecca Nurse is saintly.   The body-count builds and it is due as much to Rebecca Nurse steadfast piety as it is to Abigail’s morally bankrupt revenge quest. Reverend Parris and Judge Hathorne are begging Proctor to end this by bending his will; but Proctor’s response is the ape the behavior of his martyr neighbor who died moaning: ‘bring more weight’.  Once again the cornerstone of the drama lies in the tight knit interaction off the ENTIRE cast bearing the weight of honor in an impossible moral conundrum.  This is not the story of Proctor or Hale or Nurse; but of us and our communities  Are more stones always the answer in the face of the terror of mob madness? Does preserving your ‘goodness’ take precedence over other earthly obligations?

I am a official in a small New England town which gives me a front row view of the intricacies of neighborly relations. Salem Massachusetts, where the actions occurs, is a three hour drive. The physical proximity only adds to the uncomfortable familiarity of the dangers of petty acrimony mushrooming into actual violence.  We are NOT on the cusp of actual witch trials but we need to work hard to keep demons in check. Our modernity can give a false impression that we have moral superiority over our 17th century ancestors. This week a young highschool Vermonter was forced to suicide due to the relentless online bullying of her class mates. This is akin to another case in Florida involving the death of a 12 year old girl who was targeted by a 14 year old.  These instances involved young people so this added to the disappointment that the entire audience at the opening night was middle age or older.  It would be foolish to view “The Crucible” as merely a ‘message’ play about the importance of speaking truth to power. Whether or not this play has the ability to ‘sway’ behavior is unknown. There can be no question, however, that it provokes meditation on the responsibility of being a citizen within a community. It is unfortunate the the younger, more computer savvy, crowd failed to attend. A brief perusal of any local social media sites shows the fault lines of our contemporary community.  “The Crucible” is 60 years old... but still has a great deal to say; especially to young people. We are all pressed for answers when witnessing the state’s overreach or a neighbor’s petty grievances or a weakling being crushed by a mob. This play has no solutions... but it does give us something even more vital: good questions.

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