Crucial 'Crucible'

This one you've got to see.

And that's for a number of reasons. First, The Crucible is, simply enough, a gripping drama about a terrible event in American history, the Salem Witchcraft Trials that resulted in the execution of 20 people (four others died in prison) and the arrest of more than a hundred. But author Arthur Miller had another reason for writing, in the early '50s, a play about the witch-hunts. McCarthyism was afoot, and the charge of "communist" was ruining lives, forcing or enticing individuals to become informers and creating enmities that to this day haven't entirely disappeared.

So The Crucible stands out as a moving portrayal of one man's — Miller's — conscientious response to the madness, and as a fundamental document in the ongoing History of the American Conscience. Finally, there's this: The current production at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center is powerful, riveting theater that even with a few imperfections is about as good a Crucible as you can hope to find in the next few years. So if the first two reasons don't persuade you, you'll want to be present for the superb acting of Colleen McDonnell, Bruce Blaine, Caitin McDonald and several of their colleagues. Performances this good deserve a packed house.

The story, as dramatized by Miller: It's 1692, and Rev. Samuel Parris is still baffled by the strange sleeping fit that his daughter Betty fell into after he discovered her dancing in the forest with friends. Some attribute the girl's condition to witchcraft; and those with a grievance are already blaming their misfortunes on the black arts. Skeptical of all such talk is John Proctor, an otherwise upright married man who once made the mistake of having extramarital sex with Abigail Williams, one of Betty's cousins.

When Rev. Hale, a noted witch-hunter, arrives, he seems willing to attribute Betty's troubles to natural causes — until he hears the testimony of Tituba, Parris' slave. Tituba admits that she was in the forest with the girls, and that she led them in heathen rites. Under pressure, she even claims that she saw the Devil in the company of several Salem personages. Once Tituba starts the accusing, Betty Parris suddenly comes to life and joins in. The talk spreads, scores of Salem residents are jailed and faced with hanging.

It's a gripping story, frighteningly efficient in the telling, and with more than enough suspense to keep you wondering, up until the very last moments, who will survive and at what spiritual, social or personal cost. And then there's the acting. First and foremost is the work of Colleen McDonnell, an actress I've praised many times before, but who here gives perhaps the best performance of her career. As Elizabeth Proctor, McDonnell doesn't miss a detail: She's quietly melancholic, a wronged wife who's not above using her victimhood as a weapon, but who's capable of real heroism when the situation calls for it.

Also terrific is Bruce Blaine, who plays head judge Danforth as a man who's particularly dangerous because he's so utterly sure of his fairness. Caitlin McDonald as servant girl Mary Warren is top-notch all through the evening: She makes you feel just what it's like to have your integrity called upon when you're much more comfortable with your instinct for self-preservation. And Katrina Stevenson as Abigail Williams is an all-too-credible fountain of selfishness, ruining lives left and right without the least twinge of shame. There are several other performances that are too good to go without mentioning: John Huls as judicial henchman Ezekiel Cheever, Angela Romero as Barbados-born Tituba, John Snell as sneering Judge Hathorne and Ron Sommer as the ultimately tragic town cut-up Giles Corey.

And then there's Jeff Norton, whose performance as John Proctor is too effective not to be praised and too flawed not to be criticized. The problem here, basically, is the constant anger that Norton displays in Act One, without modulation or subtlety. At first this approach seems workable, even if it contradicts Miller's note that Proctor has "quiet confidence" and "unexpressed hidden force." But by the end of the act we've seen Proctor rage at so many people so unceasingly, we can't help but feel a little exhausted.

Fortunately, Norton descends from these operatic heights once Act Two begins, and we're able to enjoy the actor/character's more varied emotional spectrum for the rest of the play. But the memory of the earlier moments doesn't quite wear off, and since Proctor is really the show's central character, our entire experience of The Crucible is affected.

There are a few other less-than-satisfying portrayals: Aaron Berger as Rev. Hale seems too young and naive to be a noted witch hunter, and Steven Ivester as Rev, Parris never really displays a minister's authority (though he's fine at suggesting his character's narcissism).

What does work beautifully, though, is The Crucible's design. Patricia J. England's set is nothing but a bare, modern-looking floor on which a few geometric, easily re-arrangeable wooden platforms are dispersed. Joy Platt's costumes, on the other hand, seem to have been made in 17th century Massachusetts — and the combination of set and costumes is potent. One accepts the reality of the actors because of the precision of the costumes, and it takes only the barest effort of imagination to see this or that platform as a piece of landscape, a child's bed, or a section of a jail cell. Nineteen actors eventually appear on England's simple but evocative in-the-round stage, and it's to director Peter Flynn's credit that they never seem to be anywhere but in Salem, 1692, in the forest, in a cabin, or outside a courtroom. This is powerfully evocative design.

But then there's a lot of power in this American classic. Even with its few flaws, The Crucible is easily the first must-see of 2002.

Contact Performing Arts Critic Mark E. Leib at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 305.

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