Review: Tampa Rep and Think Tank Theatre's Production of Arthur Miller's THE CRUCIBLE

Runs Thru October 15th at Stageworks Theatre

By: Oct. 01, 2023
Review: Tampa Rep and Think Tank Theatre's Production of Arthur Miller's THE CRUCIBLE

“This is a strange time.” --Reverend Hale

As written, Arthur Miller’s THE CRUCIBLE ranks high as the most frightening play of all time.  Other contenders for that scare-the-bejesus-out-of-us honor include The Pillowman, The Turn of the Screw, Shining City, The Weir, Wait Until Dark and Macbeth.  But THE CRUCIBLE eclipsis those other horrific works by being a fictionalized take on real life events where the true culprit is not some child killer, nor some ghost, nor some criminal going after a blind woman, nor some king whose bloodthirsty rise to the top had been predicted by three spooky witches. 

What makes THE CRUCIBLE so damned scary isn’t even the true-life Salem witch trial angle of the tale, which automatically gives it a spooky vibe.  The fright comes from the actual monster at the center of the story--society itself.  You and me, then and now.  THE CRUCIBLE is a work that continues to live and breathe and reflect the world of today, just as it reflected the world of the 1950s McCarthy Red Scare when it was written and just as it reflected the world of the late 1600s where it is set.  It’s 2023, and here we are as a society…and frighteningly enough, with conspiracy theories bandied around and lies paraded as truth, we are still the monster.

As a politician in THE CRUCIBLE, the deputy governor Danforth, frighteningly claims: “You must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between. This is a sharp time, now, a precise time--we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world.” Danforth may utter those words in the 1600s, but the sharp time, the precise time, is actually today.

When we watch THE CRUCIBLE, it’s like staring in a mirror, a worm hole of sorts that connects the 1600s with the 2020s.  There are scores of villains populating it, and not just the teenagers whose false accusations of witchcraft to settle old scores wind up killing several townsfolk. Not just the landowner who uses the girls' fake claims to heartily snatch up more property. Not just the judges and politicians who uncaringly wield their power and allow so many more deaths even after communities have tired of the trials.

The central villain of THE CRUCIBLE is mankind itself, those of us sitting in the audience.  As John Proctor, the show’s flawed but heroic lead character, says, “We are what we always were.”

The new production of THE CRUCIBLE, directed by the mighty Georgia Mallory Guy in a combined effort by Tampa Rep and Think Tank Theatre (and being performed at Stageworks), tries to aim for these universal aspects of the play.  Sofia Pickford’s costumes are a mishmash of styles from different time periods, clothing some generic human, an Everyman, rather than dealing with a specific time and place.  Actors don sweater vests, glasses, all with a touch of crimson on them.  Everyone is stained red, so don’t expect a pallette of Puritan black to clothe all of these actors.

The production is also presentational; we know at all times that we’re watching actors in a play. Several performers portray more than one part, and audience members oftentimes must suspend disbelief, especially when the same talented soul plays both Rebecca and Francis Nurse as well as the slave Tituba, or when an actor playing Ezekiel Cheevers goes to fetch another character and the same actor comes back a few moments later as Thomas Putnam (donning a red hat to show the difference). Thankfully, adding to the presentational manner of the production, the characters’ entrances are announced by cast members so we rarely get lost in a labyrinth of who’s who.    

The majority of the cast sit in chairs alongside the rotating wooden stage for the duration of the production (a great minimal set design by Jim Sorensen).  At certain intervals, the cast use ropes to move the turntable stage, symbolizing this cycle that never ends, this whirlpool of hate and finger-pointing that unfortunately will never stop, no matter what year we may live.   It’s the physical representation of Proctor’s proclamation--“We are what we always were.”

Does the director’s presentational vision work in this production of Arthur Miller’s American classic?  Yes and no.

The show is all over the place in style and tone, and yet it sometimes seems to go nowhere at all.  There are some wonderfully evocative lighting effects (thanks to Jo Averill-Snell, one of our top lighting designers), but we want even more.  There is marvelously intense music underscoring moments in the production, care of the incredibly talented Jeremy Douglass, but again, we want more of this.  There are little preshow tidbits featuring the giggly girls that are fun to watch when they happen but never add up.  And the turning of the stage is incredibly effective but it could be used to even greater effect.  The sparse use of these aspects seems by design.  But you either go all in with the presentational approach to the show or you don’t go at all.  When you do a little bit here, a little bit there, what we are left with instead is a mishmash that never coalesces, never quite gels.  It’s a bunch of interesting ideas and fragments but they never come together as a unified whole; they seem more like sketches rather than a full-sized painting. 

Take the aforementioned costumes.   Why is Reverend Parris dressed in a tan sweater vest? What does this tell us about the character?  It just seemed thrown together, like they were performing THE CRUCIBLE in a random living room (which may be the point).  Or having the judge also dressed in a sweater, while other characters don more appropriate rural fashion, it seemed like such misguided costume choices.  

And then there’s the casting.  Randi J. Norman is a brilliant performer, galvanizing the stage whenever she enters, but it’s such a stretch having her play not two but three different characters.  It takes us out of the show where we’ve suspended just about as much disbelief as we can.  That said, Ms. Norman is incredible in the roles, especially her robust Tituba and a heartbreaking Rebecca Nurse (I never could quite buy her as Rebecca’s husband, Francis, however). 

Having 15-year-old Tavo Perez play Judge Hathorne is problematic in a  different way.  Miller describes the judge as “a bitter, remorseless Salem judge.”  Hathorne is such a key part of history, and such a despicable character, that author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was related to him, changed the spelling of his last name to separate from his ancestor’s villainy.  Having an adolescent play this part outside of a high school production is head-scratching at best.  What is the director trying to say with this bit of casting?  That the young are also tainted; that anyone of us, even teenagers, can play the oppressors?  But such a move takes the bite away from Miller’s words, where in this horrific game of chess, both the political (Deputy Governor Danforth) and the judiciary (Hathorne) band together to checkmate the Salem citizens.  You never get a feeling of this.  Yon Mr. Perez is a marvelously talented boy, with tremendous projection and potential, but his playing such a pivotal role of a hardened judge, a role that should scare us to death, doesn’t work in any context of this play.

Cameron Kubly is excellent in both of his roles (a scowling Mr. Putnam and a panicky clerk of the court, Mr. Cheevers), and Noa Friedman brings so much heartless verve, so much venom and cunning sensuality, to the part of Abigail.  That said, good as she is, she could take the part to the next level (THE CRUCIBLE is a scary play, and she could be the scariest character of all). As Abigail’s cohorts, Eve Anton, Julianna Sparato, and Grace Grammig do quality work, always in character, although sometimes I couldn’t understand some of their lines due to enunciation issues.  And Via Shea brings depth and heartbreak to the role of Mary Warren, the turncoat teen who keeps changing her allegiances. (It’s a long way from Ms. Shea’s work as Sandy in the New Tampa Players’ recent production of Grease.)

Michael Gilbert is quite good as the sturdy Giles Corey, getting some much-needed comic relief. And Lance Markeith Felton is forceful as Reverend Parris, sometimes too forceful and mostly one-note, and we never sense the religious ferocity from him, or even the ferocity of panic…just ferocity for ferocity’s sake. Samantha Bollinger does fine enough in the small part of Sarah Goode, and Jadon Milne is too young for the part of Marshall Herrick but makes it work (Ryan Pope will also play the part).   

 The production starts off shaky, with some of the cast seemingly grasping for lines, and takes a long while to find its footing. But Miller’s haunting script and some of the powerhouse  performances save the day.

Luis Rivera brings so much depth and heart to the role of Reverend Hale, who has the most dramatic arc in THE CRUCIBLE.  He gives us hope that anyone, even the most rigid of religious men, can see the light and actually change. It’s a stunning performance. 

Ryan Sturm is also phenomenal as Deputy Governor Danforth.  Donning a red tie, he resembles and even sounds like some of our worst politicians (Ted Cruz, for example).  And Sturm never overplays a villainous part that can easily be overdone.  He holds the remarkable third act in his hands, and he owns every moment on that stage.  He remains constant, almost stoic and relaxed in his ardent beliefs (he drips with authority and self-importance), and his work here becomes astonishing.   

Robert Teasdale is astounding as John Proctor, the flawed everyman who tries to do the right thing even if it’s the wrong thing.  He’s a tower of power, using moments of silence and building to his eruptions.  Every move, every line of his dialogue, has a purpose. And his “I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” line still makes me cry.

Mr. Teasdale's Proctor connects beautifully with his wife, Elizabeth, played by an equally astounding Brianna Larson.  Ms. Larson has such an earthiness, a naturalness, and we sense a real person up there, not an “actress.”  Her style differs from Teasdale’s--he erupts loudly and she breaks down plainly and quietly--and the contrast of the two actors works handily.  It's been many years since I’ve seen the exemplary Ms. Larson on the stage (Hair in 2014, where she stole the show), and she once again stands out in this production.  I hope it’s not another nine years before I see her again on the stage.

I often got the sense that this production of THE CRUCIBLE kept trying to find itself, with the seemingly random mixing of styles and theatrics, and I don’t think it ever quite discovered what it actually wanted in the end.  It didn’t necessarily scare me, as the play certainly can do, and it didn’t make me see things in it anew.  I felt that everything was thrown in there for some kind of effect, and while most of the acting and Miller’s wondrous words and themes shone through, I left the theatre more in confusion than anything else.  Why this CRUCIBLE, why now?  We know the answer--anyone who watches the evening news knows the answer--but it’s still a question I asked after the show.  That said, it needs to be seen, to be experienced, to see our lesser demons and, yes, our better angels in action both then and now.  Like it or not, there’s never been a production of THE CRUCIBLE quite like this one.

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