BWW Review: THE CRUCIBLE at The Vagabond
The Vagabond's masterful production of THE CRUCIBLE is must-see theater. If you are haunted by a grim recollection of Arthur Miller in high school, here's your chance to sweep those bad memories away and see things in a new light. Exceptionally well cast and well directed, the story proves timeless as high drama with social relevance. Written in 1953, Miller compares the accusation of witchcraft against Massachusetts' colonists to the persecution of Americans suspected as communists in the mid-20th century.
It's 1692 and the puritans prove to be a quarrelsome lot, engaging in a toxic combination of religious fervor and litigious behavior. They constantly talk about the commandments and proceed to break them like bulls in a china shop. They are Peyton Place with buckle shoes and bonnets. Superstitions abound. Witches and demons are ready to pounce on any impure soul. If ever a group needed Prozac and a safe space, it's this one. Adding to this poison brew is Salem's clique of mean girls in petticoats led by Abigail Williams (Emilie Zelle Holmstock). Where Abigail goes, the others follow. This following includes dancing (gasp) in the dark forest and other pagan extracurriculars. To spice things up further, Barbadian slave Tituba (Samantha McEwen Deininger), apparently mentored them in the ways of dark magic all in an attempt to curse Elizabeth Proctor (Ryan Gunning).
Elizabeth's husband is farmer John Proctor (David Shoemaker), and the object of Abigail's unwavering desire. Unfortunately for his respectable standing, they had an affair and now he is a man burdened by guilt and shame. Abigail, on the other hand, suffers from none of those issues and will stop at nothing to claim his heart. When Reverend Samuel Parris (Stuart Kazanow) discovers the girls' improper behavior, the ball of lies starts rolling and turns into a big boulder of irrational explanations and fake information. Suddenly, everyone is under suspicion of consorting with the devil and the town jail reaches maximum capacity. Next thing you know, even the most pious people are sitting on death row.
At the heart of the story is John Proctor's struggle to define his honor and his values. Will he reveal his former lover of lying and attempting murder? Shoemaker is superb as a man who retains his nobility despite his failings. Hanging on to the shreds of his reputation and his love for his family, he finally faces an unbearable choice and, even if you know the story, Shoemaker makes you believe you don't and that you are watching it for the first time. As the wronged wife, Gunning also turns in a finely tuned performance that is both restrained and passionate. There are no clichés here. The director and the actors have made sophisticated choices without sacrificing any of the drama.
Holmstock is riveting, flirtatious, and shockingly wicked as the play's pilgrim girl gone wild. She manages to imbue Abigail with enough emotion to temper her sociopathic tendencies. Holmstock's reactions and expressions are pitch perfect. You see the spark between her and her married farmer that leads to the fire that proceeds to burn down the village.
When Salem's version of a special prosecutor arrives in the form of Reverend Hale (Christian Smith), he seems a stooge for the superstitious. Smith does a moving and emotional turn as a man who discovers the value of the truth in the midst of lies and manipulations. Can he shine that light toward the future? We hope.
This is a large cast of characters, but this group of actors is one of the most talented I've seen. From Kazanow's perfectly bloviating Reverend, to the perfectly pious Rebecca Nurse (Claire Levine) to the perfectly pompous Putnams (Lauren Riley Jackson and David Hanaue) to Deininger's Tituba driven to madness, the entire cast is thoroughly engaging.
Director Steven Deininger meets and exceeds the challenge of producing a story that can easily tip over into excess or a drab version of a bad Thanksgiving. The sets and costumes add to the fresh, modern feel of the production while still acknowledging its place in the history of America. And as we know too well, history likes to repeat itself. And, so, here we are once more.
THE CRUCIBLE plays now through June 30th, 2019 at The Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway. For more information, call (410) 563-9135 or go to www.vagabondplayers.org