The Crucible — Image via guthrietheater.org

The Crucible

Guthrie Theater
Directed by Joe Dowling

Arthur Miller’s well-worn classic The Crucible is at least three plays in one: a political allegory of the McCarthy era; a period piece that attempts to recreate an infamous episode from early American history; and a human tale of real, ostensibly sane people both creating and reacting to insane circumstances. It is the latter aspect of the play that gets the most emphasis in the Guthrie Theater‘s current production, directed by Joe Dowling. Even as events spiral completely out of control, we maintain a clear view into how each character’s actions are shaped by his or her motivations and how all but the most callous characters struggle with the dire consequences of those actions.

The Crucible — Image via guthrietheater.orgRichard Hoover’s sparse set is dominated by the 20-odd tree trunks that hang above the stage, always referring us back to the opening scene, in which Barbadian slave woman Tituba (Greta Oglesby) leads a group of teenage girls in a conjuring ritual in the woods outside Salem, Massachusetts. Dowling’s production lingers for some time on this ritual, giving it its own internal logic that contrasts with the rock-solid Puritanism of official life in Salem. The collision between these two worlds is the spark that sets afire an unstoppable chain of events. The tinder is the secret of the brief affair between one of the girls, Abigail Williams (Chloe Armao), and her former employer, John Proctor (Erik Heger), and the fuel is the simmering resentments that have long been threatening to pull the town apart.

While there are clearly a few villains in The Crucible — most notably Abigail, greedy preacher Samuel Parris (Bill McCallum), and deputy governor Thomas Danforth (Stephen Yoakam) — Dowling and his collaborators wisely avoid making them cartoonishly evil. Armao’s Abigail comes across as more of a petulant child than anything else, while McCallum’s Parris seems honestly incapable of seeing anything through the lens of anything other than his own self-interest. Danforth comes across as the most interesting of the three, as Yoakam paints a picture of a main certain in his faith that reason and justice will always be on the side of the state — and thus, when that state has already executed multiple people for witchcraft, no error can realistically be admitted.

The Crucible — Image via guthrietheater.orgMeanwhile, Heger does an admirable job with the play’s erstwhile hero. Proctor gets to speak many of the play’s most stirring defenses of reason and decency, but he is also deeply conflicted and ashamed of his own conduct. Heger gives Proctor’s words an appropriate edge of humility and self-doubt, which contrasts with the calm certainty in what is right that characterizes his own model for heroism, his wife Elizabeth (Michelle O’Neill).

Ultimately, the play’s most intriguing characters are those who are forced to come face to face with the horror of their own roles in the unfolding mania. Chief among these is John Hale (John Catron), the young, Harvard-educated preacher who is confident in his mastery of the science of ferreting out witchcraft until he starts to get to know some of the accused. Catron turns in a strong portrayal of Hale’s slow evolution toward moral powerlessness. Also notable is Peter Michael Goetz’s portrayal of Giles Corey, the litigious farmer whose openness and willingness to speak his mind bring nothing but sorrow to him and others.

It is fitting that Dowling has chosen, in his second-to-last directing gig as the Guthrie’s leader, to put on a play with a huge ensemble cast and fill it with company regulars (including many whom I have not had a chance to mention here). Both director and cast play to their strengths. The Crucible has some elements that it might be tempting to try to subvert from the perspective of contemporary values — most notably the tired Madonna-whore dichotomy between Elizabeth and Abigail. Instead, Dowling and his collaborators remain faithful to the text, giving us a straight-ahead take that gets to the heart of the play’s humanity.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.