BWW Review: The Stratford Festival Production of THE CRUCIBLE is Intense and Captivating Throughout
For the first time since 1975, the Stratford Festival is putting on a production of Arthur Miller's chilling 1953 play, THE CRUCIBLE. Directed by Jonathan Goad, this production maintains a thrilling level of intensity for its entire duration, keeping audiences in the Avon Theatre utterly captivated while simultaneously squirming at the challenging situation they are seeing on stage and the frightening fact that some of the most outlandish elements of the plot are far too relatable to what is going on in politics and society today.
The story portrayed in this play is based on the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and the play itself was written at a time when the US was in the midst of its own 'witch hunt' of suspected communists. In one of the program liner notes, Craig Walker (Director of the Dan School of Drama and Music at Queen's University) informs us that Arthur Miller had once commented that he can almost tell what a political situation is in a country when this play suddenly becomes successful there. "It is either a warning of tyranny on the way or a reminder of tyranny just past." One could almost argue that current North American society is right in the middle of such a time, and with the #MeToo movement ever present, the themes of this play are at the same time both poignant and uncomfortable-traits of a play that one might not always gleefully seek out in the theatre, but an incredibly important aspect of art none-the-less.
This play opens with Reverend Parris (Scott Wentworth) questioning his niece Abigail Williams (Katelyn McCulloch) about events leading up to his young daughter Betty (Aviva Goad) having unexplained bizarre fits of illness. Parris had seen several young girls dancing in the woods and is suspicious of Abigail's intentions. It turns out, he has reason to be, as Abigail has many secrets that all lead back to an affair with John Proctor (Tim Campbell). After being told by Proctor that the relationship must end and that she can never speak of it, her justified hurt along with her youthful lust lead to a misdirected rage toward his wife Elizabeth (Shannon Taylor), who she is determined to take out of the picture. The opportunity strikes when women in town start being accused of witchcraft and the fanatical religious community quickly begins to accept just about anything as confirmation of witchcraft as soon as someone is accused.
Even being familiar with the story, there is a degree of stress that comes with watching it play out. That stress is accompanied by a sense of hope that somehow the script might change and characters might come to their senses. This mutually felt stress amongst audience members is skillfully crafted and sustained by Goad's direction and by the performances given by every single actor on stage. Shannon Taylor is excellent as the stoic and sensible Elizabeth, who can see the writing on the wall as she tries to preserve her safety while still coping with the hurt of her husband's betrayal. Tim Campbell is also heartbreaking in his role of John Proctor as he comes to terms with just how unthinkably devastating his act of adultery is for him and for Elizabeth.
In the middle of the #MeToo movement, which has done great work to not only highlight the mistreatment of women by men in positions of power, but also to dispel the myth that most women are making false accusations-this play comes at such an interesting time. In this play, women have very little power in an unjust society ruled by the patriarchy, and yet, Abigail and her friends are indeed making false accusations...and against other women no less. Furthermore, Abigail has truly malicious intentions against the protagonists, but present day audiences are acutely aware that he is also a grown man who had an affair with an immature young teenager-something that is in no way her fault and yet it is often treated by Proctor as her main fault. This is messy and uncomfortable and will hopefully lead audience members to engage in further dialogue about how the society portrayed in this play begot the situation that these characters find themselves in. It may once have been easy to paint Abigail as the villain, but it could be argued that she sees her plot as her only recourse in her fight for self preservation. Her society has taught her that the needs to go on the offensive and 'play the game' in order to defend herself. She is a far more complex character than what is even on the page, and McCulloch gives her the depth she deserves. There are times where we quite literally see her holding her tongue-biting down on it or holding it in her cheek. She wants so desperately to defend herself and her feelings but she knows she needs to choose her words carefully within the confines of the zealously religious patriarchal society in which she is forced to operate.
It is also important to acknowledge that the first women accused of witchcraft in this production, are women of colour. This intersectional exploration of misogyny and racism is incredibly important and relevant in today's society. There are lines of dialogue in this play that are explicitly racist and so it is critical that Goad and company present this in a way that allows the audience to see that women are not seen as equal but that women of colour are seen as even less equal.
Another fascinating character is Mary Warren-portrayed brilliantly by Mamie Zwettler. Mary was hired as the Proctors' servant after Abigail was let go following the affair. Mary is the quintessential high school girl with low self esteem who wants to fit in with Abigail and her crew of 'mean girls'-Except this is not high school drama. She is thrust into an adult situation in an unjust courtroom and her words could lead someone (possibly even herself) to their death. Everyone who has even briefly cared about fitting in in high school will immediately relate to and understand the dynamics at play between Mary and Abigail & company. Initially, Mary all but convinces herself that she has been possessed by Elizabeth Proctor's witchcraft because she so desperately wants the approval of her peers. Mary also knows Elizabeth and John though, and once removed from her peers, she grapples with the truth and how she had contributed to warping it. Mary is urged to tell her truth, but the problem she faces is that legal system in her society is not actually looking for the truth--A fact that several characters eventually come to either realize or admit to themselves at different times throughout the play. Zwettler is captivating as Mary unravels. You can almost see the pressure of the situation physically crushing her.
Also contributing to the tense tone of this show are the compositions and sound design by Debashis Sinha. Like with any movie thriller, sound is crucial to setting this tone and that is exactly what Sinha is able to do for the entire play. It feels like a thriller.
If you are looking for a light and fun night out, this may not be the play for you...But if you are looking for theatre to challenge you and leave you affected for days following the performance, you should most definitely catch this production of THE CRUCIBLE.
THE CRUCIBLE continues in Repertory at the Avon Theatre until October 25th.
Photo Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann