Review: Blackbird and Lipscomb's Riveting THE CRUCIBLE

By: Feb. 20, 2016
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Beki Baker's extraordinary direction, which provides a stunningly fresh perspective of Arthur Miller's stage masterpiece - along with remarkable performances from a cast of both professional and student actors - ensures that audiences will long be considering the impact of The Crucible, now onstage at Shamblin Theater through February 28, after the final curtain is rung down on this joint production of Blackbird Theater and Lipscomb University Department of Theatre.

While Miller's play about rampant hysteria borne by prejudice and distrust, class warfare and overbearing religious belief and overwhelming zealotry remains a vibrant indictment of unchecked power and political corruption, themes which make it all the more relevant in today's virulent atmosphere, it first served as a staggering allegory set against the backdrop of McCarthyism in the 1950s. At first rebuffed by critics when it debuted on Broadway in 1953 (although it went on to win the Tony Award for best play of the season), it eventually proved its mettle, claiming a place among the very best and most acclaimed plays ever written.

Miller's story - based upon the history of the Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692 - delivers a taut and compelling drama, using historical facts, events and characters to craft a play that challenges conservative thought and action while considering the aftermath of unbridled greed and avarice set against a backdrop of religion run amok. The Crucible is not, however, a documentary; rather, Miller used the 20/20 vision of historical perspective to create characters based on memorable figures from the past, with a heightened sense of drama and a generous amount of poetic license in order to create a stage drama that confronts reality. Thus, he makes the whole story more palatable to contemporary audiences, who consider themselves far more prescient than their antecedents, even if recent events prove otherwise.

While the playwright framed his allegorical drama within the realities associated with blacklisting and other anti-communist actions that were firmly in society's purview at the time it was written, it remains potent and accessible thanks to the unyielding sense that there will always be one segment of society which considers itself above another, suspicious of what they do not understand and determined to bend the will of the people to their own way of thinking. In that sense, demagoguery will never die out, the ability of people to fail to realize what is transpiring while they shove their collective head into the sand, thus denying their roles in allowing evil to triumph.

The Crucible remains enormously relevant: Miller's play holds up a mirror to us all, imploring us to see the evil in our own lives, with history providing us the wherewithal to challenge it.

Baker's cinematic approach to The Crucible draws the audience into the highly theatrical drama despite its portentous nature and the overwhelmingly oppressive ideas highlighted by Miller's exquisitely written script that is somehow less didactic and heavy-handed than it could be. With a visually arresting set design by Andy Bleiler and with David Hardy's beautiful lighting design, the physical trappings of The Crucible add to the suspenseful nature of the production, while Hannah Schmidt's costume design help to create a very real sense of who these characters are and what their roles in Salem society may have been. Further, the sound design - which features percussive drumming to create an ambient sense of ennui and an otherworldly, perhaps supernatural, undercurrent, designed by Baker and Blackbird's artistic director Wes Driver (who plays the smarmy and snarky Reverend Parris) - creates an auditory sense of intrigue and dread that helps Miller's words to land horrifyingly on target.

Yet what really sets this production of The Crucible (which is rarely produced locally, despite claims by certain cohorts that they've seen countless productions over the years) apart from others is Baker's ability to cast the show with an ensemble of local actors who breathe vivid life into these characters without one iota of stagey theatricality. Baker's ensemble of actors do not merely take on the mantle of the fictional, but rather they easily "become" characters with a genuine sense of authenticity. They deliver Miller's prose, written in such a way to convey how he presumed people would have spoken in the 17th century, with a heretofore unheard of sense of the time and place in which the story unfolds. But there remains a sense of contemporary conversation that makes the story accessible and easily discernable.

Miller's play focuses on a coterie of girls who - for lack of anything else to do - become enraptured by the altogether foreign to them intrigue of witchcraft and voodoo, practiced by the slave Tituba who conjures spells and crafts potions to be drunk in anticipation of reversing their lovelorn and hard-scrabble lives of servitude and puritanical values. When they are discovered by the Reverend Parris dancing around a fire, muttering incantations while caught up in the farfetched rituals of summoning the devil, a convoluted plot is hatched to disguise their actions and to lay blame for their misbehavior on the poor, lamentable slave woman who is their most likely foil.

As the word of evil-doing spreads throughout the colony, which finds itself caught up in a religious fervor to expel the devil, his so-called worshippers and any number of colonists accused of being witches or merely pawns in both the supernatural and earthbound hijinks of the "mean girls," as we would know them today, the day-to-day world of the Massachusetts colony is thoroughly upended by the spectacle of legal maneuverings and supposed acts of witchcraft. As this sense of unease and hysteria continues to mount, the colonists find themselves in a to-the-death struggle between right and wrong, challenging their very belief system and bastardizing honor and grace in a relentless struggle of self-destruction and societal dysfunction.

Confusion and rumor rule the day, with accusations hurled in the faces of anyone deemed worthy of betrayal as Abigail Williams and her circle of friends unleash their all too earthbound brand of jealousy and reprehensible behavior around the neighborhood, shattering good names and reputations in their zeal to exact revenge and terror on those around them.

Baker keeps the action of the four-act play moving along at a quick, yet thoroughly engaging, clip - condensing the story to an economical two acts that at no time seems forced or truncated. Rather, she and her company of exceptional actors grab your attention by its lapels, bringing you along for a superbly acted, tremendously told tale of corruption and heartrending, palpable human drama.

The commanding and focused Ross Bolen, portraying the conflicted farmer John Proctor, delivers an amazingly adroit and well-conceived performance that allows him to evolve from a potentially self-absorbed and rakish lecher to a completely supportive husband and hard-working farmer who relinquishes his good name and place in the community in an effort to protect and save his wife, Elizabeth (played with equal grace and unforced emotion by Shannon Hoppe, in a courageous and heartfelt performance) from the gallows. Together, Bolen and Hoppe share an unequaled sense of onstage chemistry that propels their story along its way.

Emily Meinerding is the very picture of evil incarnate, manipulating her group of friends with a sense of coolness that is evident throughout (her character is not unlike that of The Children's Hour's Mary Tilford, whose accusations result in much heartache and despair). Sarah Zanotti's electrifying performance as Mary Warren, the young girl who struggles with honesty and God-fearing goodliness, is perhaps the most startling from among Baker's cast of university students. Meinerding and Zanotti are joined onstage by their classmates Ann-Marie Bagge, Bekah Stogner, Morgan Bowling, Virouna Elia, Olivia Mell, Mary Elizabeth Roberts and Allison Kalfas, who blend beautifully with the cast of more experienced professional actors to create a sense of community that pervades the proceedings.

Among those professional actors are the aforementioned Driver, whose self-aggrandizing Parris is snarkily conceived and expressively played onstage; John Mauldin as the conniving Thomas Putnam, with Nettie Mae Kraft as his histrionic and unhinged wife, Ann Putnam; Tamiko Robinson Steele, perfect as the frightened slave Tituba, who goes crazy to the point of hallucinations while imprisoned; and Rob Wilds, impressive as the easily swayed Judge Hathorne, who proves justice is oftentimes blinded by subterfuge and manipulation.

Brian Webb Russell adds yet another superb performance to his already burgeoning resume, playing the heavy-handed Deputy-Governor Danforth, with a fillip of supercilious superiority. Wesley Paine's ethereal - and somehow grounded in reality - performance as Rebecca Nurse is impressively rendered, eschewing artifice to create a character who is believable and true. Phil Brady makes a startling Blackbird debut as Giles Corey, injecting some much-need levity at moments most in need of such a revelation.

But it's Sean Martin who delivers the most revelatory performance of the evening with his multi-dimensional performance as the pious Reverend John Hale, the interloper from Beverly, Massachusetts - whom we are led to believe is an expert in all things witchcraft - and whose unalterable beliefs in the power of God and faith lend credibility to his character. Martin gives full-throated power to Hale with a performance that is nuanced and heartfelt, powerful and illuminating.

Completing the cast are Antonio P. Nappo (as the easily manipulated court clerk Ezekial Cheever), Sawyer Wallace (as the cider-primed constable John Willard) and Winston Harless (as the beleaguered and belabored Francis Nurse).

  • The Crucible. By Arthur Miller. Directed by Beki Baker. Produced by Greg Greene and Beki Baker. Presented by Blackbird Theater and the Lipscomb University Department of Theatre, at LU's Shamblin Theater. Through February 28. For details, go to Running time: 3 hours (including one 10-minute intermission).
  • performance photos by John Gentry Photography; poster by Nashville artist Derrick Castle