Review: THE CRUCIBLE At Theatre Memphis

Now through October 1st.

By: Sep. 22, 2023
Review: THE CRUCIBLE At Theatre Memphis

The word crucible is not a term often used in everyday language. In fact, it seems to only be used when referencing Arthur Miller’s classic 1953 play, THE CRUCIBLE. But, for those not familiar with the story itself, the term means “a severe test.”

For the characters, this test is based on the Salem witch trials of 1692 in which innocent young women seen frolicking naked in the woods are accused of being possessed by evil spirits and must stand trial (or face death) for “dancing with the devil.” For audiences, the test is whether they’ll be able to recall seeing an ensemble of actors ever so completely give themselves over to a theatrical production. For both, the odds of passing are dismal. Under the direction of John Maness, Theatre Memphis’ Next Stage production of THE CRUCIBLE is engaging, disturbing, and ultimately devastating. With some of the most committed performances ever seen on a Memphis stage, it’s, in a word, superb.

While there is plenty of “backstory” as to what prompted Arthur Miller to write this play (a response to McCarthyism in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s) and plenty of parallels to the plot points even today (fear-mongering, extremism, political and religious persecution, etc.), what makes this production so powerful is not only the performances, but also the proximity of the audience to the action in Theatre Memphis’ smaller Next Stage space—a space which requires the onlookers to viscerally experience the fear, anguish and hopelessness of the beleaguered characters in the most intimate of manners. In this production, there is no escape for anyone (cast, crew, or audience).

Walking into this show requires literally passing through upstage center onto Jack Netzel-Yates’ dark, rustic set with foreboding wooden pillars all around immediately placing everyone into a world of struggle and strife. Nicole Northington’s dim lighting design supports the ambiance of danger and darkness. As has become the norm at Theatre Memphis, Amie Eoff’s costumes fit every actor perfectly and nicely replicate the attire of the late 17th century. But it’s Jason Eschhofen’s sound design which creates a world of an impending doom that literally hums just beneath the surface throughout the action with an almost inaudible “screeching noise” edging everyone to the verge of destruction. It’s inescapable and manages to drive the tension higher minute by excruciating minute.

While every actor on this stage deserves to be recognized for unbelievable performances, a handful somehow transcend what you think to be possible and showcase the art of acting in a manner that can only be called masterful.

Review: THE CRUCIBLE At Theatre Memphis
Margot Anderson as Betty Parris

From the very beginning, young Margot Anderson astounds as Betty Parris, the possessed tween who gravitates between being comatose and hysterical at a moment’s notice as she contends with the demons possibly inhabiting her. Even the ability to lie motionless for such a long period of time is harder than it looks, and Anderson manages to do it with the utmost creepiness.

Review: THE CRUCIBLE At Theatre Memphis
Matthew Hamner as Samuel Parris and Hiawaratha Jackson as Tituba

Matthew Hamner perfectly conveys Reverend Samuel Parris as a father trying to save his cursed daughter while also trying to save his place in the church. He never overplays the struggle, but manages to strike just the right note of a parent’s concern with a preacher’s responsibility.

Likewise, Chris Tracy is equally impressive as Reverend John Hale—a reasonable man who seeks the truth and fairness despite the panic growing around him.

As the girl who must choose between the truth and saving her friend’s lives, Parker Chase is astounding as Mary Warren and her attempts to be honest despite the pain and madness overtaking her and those around her.

Review: THE CRUCIBLE At Theatre Memphis
Greg Boller as Deputy Governor Danforth

Greg Boller has never been better as Deputy Governor Danforth—the judge, juror and executioner who is unrelenting in his pursuit of the truth regardless of how many people he must kill to get it. He is a man of conviction unwavering in the destruction it may cause.

Review: THE CRUCIBLE At Theatre Memphis
Chelsea Robinson as Elizabeth Proctor

Amid the madness of a town imploding with rumor, fear and hysterics, Chelsea Robinson portrays Elizabeth Proctor with a grace and elegance that supersedes human understanding. Her capacity for forgiveness and acceptance in the face of evil is a reminder of just how good people can still be.

Review: THE CRUCIBLE At Theatre Memphis
Hiawaratha Jackson as Tituba

Hiawaratha Jackson is literally spellbinding as Tituba, the Native American enslaved woman from Barbados who has succumbed to the witchcraft. Jackson’s dedication to the role will have you wholly convinced that you are in the presence of a great artist and witness to an actual possession.

Review: THE CRUCIBLE At Theatre Memphis
Mac White as Abigail Williams

Somehow even topping these amazing performances is Mac White as Abigail Williams (the “leader” of the “witches”). White’s commitment to the character and tenacity of spirit is captivating. Her desires to exact revenge on John Proctor at the expense of the village are calamitous and presented with such a demanding stage presence that you can’t look away—not that you’d want to.

Review: THE CRUCIBLE At Theatre Memphis
JS Tate as John Proctor

Finally, JS Tate gives a command performance as John Proctor, a noble, but flawed human being. His one indiscretion provides the lynchpin for the mass frenzy and public hangings of countless innocent victims. His only chance to escape endless torture and ultimately save his own life is to publicly admit to something he knows not to be true. It’s a test of conscience and massive fortitude—a crucible. In the hands of Tate, the agony is raw, real, and palatable. With blood, dirt and sweat pouring down his face, he begs for his name and mercy like no sentient being ever should have to and it is gut wrenching to watch. Mr. Tate gives a performance of a lifetime.

Odds are great that you won’t be able to get a ticket to this already sold-out show, but try if you may. Most people are already familiar with this classic—either through high school English classes or experiencing one of its endless iterations on film, tv or stage. Oftentimes, classics are left behind for the mere mortals amongst us to try and come within even a smidgeon of brushing that greatness with our limited capacities for interpretation, but still we try. For the cast and crew of this Theatre Memphis production, not only do they take on this enormous test/crucible, but they succeed magnificently.

Photo Credit: Carla McDonald


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From This Author - Kevin Shaw

Kevin grew up performing in the Birmingham, AL community theatre circuit since 1974. After moving to Los Angeles and appearing in a number of theatrical, TV and Film projects, he transitioned to direc... Kevin Shaw">(read more about this author)


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