There are some great plays that don’t seem particularly relatable to the present day. Until recently, I would have counted Arthur Miller’s The Crucible among them.
Then last month, Tea Party darling Michelle Bachmann came up with her absurd claim that the Muslim Brotherhood had infiltrated the U.S. government. Laughable as it was, it recalled the far more effective fear-mongering of another right-wing politician, Joseph McCarthy, whose communist witch hunts of the 1950s inspired Miller to write about the literal witch hunts of 17th-century Salem.
As Soulpepper Theatre’s excellent revival of The Crucible reminds us, what can begin as ridiculous can end up terrifying. In Miller’s play, the most dubious of evidence – the antics of some giddy teenage girls – is twisted and inflated by willful adult minds until it has become a full-blown satanic conspiracy. Before long, in a wave of mass hysteria, it seems as though half the Massachusetts colony has been either imprisoned or hanged.
At the start of Albert Schultz’s slow-burning production, I was worried that the drama had lost its effectiveness. The earnest talk of witches and spirits, the silly superstitions of bygone times, and the obvious ulterior motives of the adults all make us giggle. But wait for it: Embedded in this ignorance are the seeds of tragedy.
The first ugly signs come when the authorities, convinced the Devil is afoot, frighten and bully the girls into pretending they’ve seen witches and – to use McCarthy-era parlance – naming names. Soon the girls, with the fate of their elders in their hands, have become the powerful ones. None more so than Abigail Williams (Hannah Miller), the spurned lover of farmer John Proctor (Stuart Hughes), who spitefully uses her power to point the finger at Proctor’s innocent wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Fagan).
By the time we reach the explosive final scenes, however, no one is in control. The great witch-hunting machine that the judges and churchmen have set in motion has taken on a life of its own. Even the most adamant of the witch-hunters stand impotent and aghast as, suddenly confronted with doubts, they begin to realize the full scope of what they have done.
I’ve seen numerous versions of The Crucible, including the Robin Phillips one at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre in 1989, which featured Schultz, Hughes and other future Soulpepper members. While there are other ways to play Miller’s characters, there are no better ones than what we see in this production.
Hughes is outstanding as a rough-hewn, outspoken Proctor, the outsider drawn into the insanity of the witch trials to save his wife – only to find himself also facing the gallows. Schultz’s direction emphasizes Proctor’s changing relationship with Elizabeth, which runs counter to the downward spiral of the rest of the story. We first see them living in a state of strained civility – she unable to fully forgive his infidelity, he frustrated by her coldness. But the hell of the trials burns all doubt away and in their last scene we witness a quietly moving display of genuine love. Fagan, while giving a more inward performance than Hughes, beautifully conveys Elizabeth’s feelings in the smallest glances and gestures.
Hannah Miller’s Abigail is attractive but detestable. Of all the young women, our sympathy goes to Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster’s pitiable Mary Warren, the Proctors’ serving girl, who embodies both the boldness of empowerment and the weakness of a teenager succumbing to the most heinous form of peer pressure.
Playing the secondary heroes, William Webster is delightful as the crusty, litigious farmer Giles Corey, while Nancy Palk gleams with both good humour and good sense as the local wise woman, Rebecca Nurse. Oliver Dennis, in a rare dramatic role, gives the demonology expert Rev. Hale a gentle nature which prefigures his later pangs of conscience.
Joseph Ziegler, meanwhile, brings a dry arrogance to the implacable chief justice Danforth. There is also superb work by Derek Boyes as the unctuous local minister Parris and Michael Hanrahan as the grasping land baron Putnam – men who help fuel the witch-hunting madness for selfish reasons.
There’s a kind of Puritan plainness and rigour to all the acting, as there is in Lorenzo Savoini’s simple but mutable rustic-wood set and monochrome period costumes. Steven Hawkins adds a touch of poetry with his tender lighting. The show is without music, John Gzowski’s bleak sound design confining itself to peals of thunder and cawing crows. Instead, the cast breaks into religious chants during the scene transitions.
Soulpepper proves that The Crucible remains powerful in and of itself. But Miller’s play also stands as a warning against the McCarthys and Bachmanns of this world – those who would sow fear and ruin lives under the guise of seeking the truth.