BWW Review: ACT's Searing THE CRUCIBLE Shines with all Substance and Very Little Flash
Arthur Miller's classic "The Crucible" remains a kind of mainstay of theater across the country from professional productions down to the myriad high school productions. But for it to ring true it must resonate with society's repeated history with mob mentality whether that be the literal Salem witch trials of the story or McCarthyism or even more recent moments in our history where truth is over shadowed by fear. And while ACT's current production of the classic nails those themes it also manages to make the production all about the stellar performances and the brilliant script than about any set or costumes or flashy presentation.
Scenic Designer Matthew Smucker has taken a quite sparse and deconstructed view of the stage itself as the walls of the set are repeatedly represented only with chalk outlines drawn by the actors. This lack of set allows for a sense of openness and transparency even in the midst of all the secrets and lies as we constantly see the comings and goings of the actors or even see them just sitting "off-stage" as their fellow actors perform. And that chalk goes on to serve an even more sinister purpose as the actors continue to write the names of the accused witches on the stage and back wall of the theater and with that open and inclusive atmosphere you almost expect them to come into the audience and write some of our names up there too.
But beyond the simplicity of the surroundings it's the riveting story that has survived the test of time that we're here to see as this small town begins to disintegrate as they accuse woman after woman of witchcraft (a hangable offense) all based on the pretense of four young girls who were caught dancing in the woods and attempting to conjure spirits. The girls, led by the scheming Abigail (Sylvie Davisdon), claim they were drawn into this by the devil and eventually by other townspeople they don't like in order to save themselves. But the lie soon spins out of control and family after family is destroyed as the girls gain more and more power and notoriety.
Director John Langs has done a stunning job of keeping the build of the tension and stakes of the play going and always making it feel just this side of dangerous. And his use of cameras and monitors during the courtroom scene as Abigail faces off with one of the other girls, Mary Warren (Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako) and the one of the main objects of her animosity, John Proctor (Paul Morgan Stetler) is genius as it evokes the feel of the McCarthy hearings, which was the basis for Miller's writing of this play to begin with.
Every single member of this ensemble is bringing their A game with their performances in telling this story with depth and clarity and we could not ask for a better dream team of actors. Khanh Doan as the accused Mary Proctor is wonderful as she attempts to hold her marriage and family together in the face of lies and scandal. Avery Clark brings in a stunning arc as Rev. Hale, the outsider brought in to consult who helps identify the presence of the devil only to eventually see that he too was duped by these girls. Shermona Mitchell has a few small but incredibly powerful moments with not one ounce of wasted time as Tituba, the black servant who becomes the initial scapegoat for the girls. Her presence and power no matter the size of the role I've seen her in over the years has never ceased to amaze me. And Nako brings in some outstanding moments as the member of the group who is drawn in through circumstance and desperately wants to tell the truth. But it's Davidson and Stetler who truly shine in the piece especially in the moments they face off against each other. Their energy and commitment is palpable. Davidson takes Abigail to a place where she absolutely feels dangerous as if she could dupe the world. And Stetler stays so grounded throughout making his final breakdown so much more powerful.
You may have seen repeated productions of this over the years. You may have even been in one in high school. But you've never seen one with as much power and commitment. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give ACT's "The Crucible" a moved YAY+. And please remember as you leave the theater, truth must always win out over fear.
"The Crucible" performs at ACT through November 12th. For tickets or information contact the ACT box office at 206-292-7676 or visit them online at www.acttheatre.org.