Sunday, February 27, 2011

"The Crucible" at Trinity Rep

One desperately wishes that the current production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” at Trinity Rep had not been given such royal treatment. The play is stooped and abashed under the heavy crown – and the errant expectations – placed on it by director Brian McEleney and his cast. Certainly, “The Crucible” is no model of modesty: it is full of declamation and self-righteousness. But it should be allowed to retain its rusticity, its squalor, and its urgency – the elements that make it a human tragedy and not a mere metaphor. McEleney sets it on a throne, from which it issues a series of ungrounded and untestable edicts, before which the audience is cowed like subjects or students. When the audience stands wearily at show’s end, it is as if to acknowledge Miller’s perceived prophetic infallibility rather than the production’s ingenuity. This reflexive display is, of course, anathema to the play’s celebration of the individual.

The premise of this production is that Miller’s 1953 play about the Salem witch trials, which he wrote as a way to understand and illuminate the farcical anti-communist hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, is relevant today because of our own febrile and delusional political discourse. It is a metaphor twice removed and, as such, it makes a better thought experiment than theatre experience. But the first proposition of the Theatre of the Sincere is that even the least articulated thought experiment makes a good play. This is a diminishment of theatre and should be a disappointment to audiences. It suggests that the best that plays can do is edify, and that the most audiences can hope for from a night at the theatre is a sound education, or at least an equivalency certificate. It seems as though Trinity has ceded terror to other media, which is as much to give up on theatre, because it is also a surrender of pleasure. Terror is not merely horror – although in a play about witches in an encroaching geographical and spiritual wilderness, horror ought to loom. (It doesn’t, here.) It is also an aspect of empathy: the fear, aroused through the use of sound, space, and performance, that the fate of the characters onstage is as real, consequential, and undetermined as one’s own. The current Trinity production does not work for this feeling of disorientation; instead, it meets us on our terms, as though only our story mattered. The play itself can practically be discarded as long as its relevance is asserted and our own contemporary condition is spelled out.

Crudely put, “The Crucible” does not tell our story but the story of the Salem witch trials of 1692, in which nineteen women and men were hanged because of the wild accusations of pre-adolescent girls. Or, rather, it tells the part of the story that involves the flawed hero-figure John Proctor, a paragon of masculinity and morality whose lone slip is a doozy: while his wife was sick, he had an affair with his teenaged servant, Abigail. From Abigail, Proctor learns that the girls’ accusations are baseless charges issued out of spite, vengeance, and fear – but in order to expose their fraudulence he has to publicly admit to his indiscretion with her. There are at least three stories entwined here: the hysteria of power enjoyed by the accusing girls; the angry convulsions of the besieged moral authority in Salem; and the degradation of John Proctor, who is not a witch but who, to survive this ordeal as the man he thought he was, must confess to some other transgression. We can’t forget that Miller’s work is not a general indictment of society but a sensitive scanning of community dynamics.

The text takes place in 1692; the action in McEleney’s production is set on the recreated steps of Providence City Hall, built in 1878. The house and stage lights are barely differentiated, so the drama appears to play out in the glare of the light of day. In an interview with Bill Rodriguez, in the Providence Phoenix, McEleney said the production was meant to conjure “guerilla street theater,” immediate and confrontational, but what it conjures instead is community theater, earnest and reassuring. Sure, the production is dyspeptic, but in utterly predictable and uncontroversial ways. The actors, looking adrift on the vast set and, occasionally, along the house aisles, recite their lines as though into a strong wind. They are serious and determined, but their performances feel projected rather than inhabited. The show has all the spontaneity and humor of a Puritan sermon; indeed, it is as dull and deliberate as an exegesis. It cries out for the fury and fervor of a revival.

This is not to say that the production lacks all feeling. The long second scene (the second act in Miller’s script) between John Proctor (Stephen Thorne) and his wife, Elizabeth (Angela Brazil), runs hot with the fuel of feeling: Proctor’s guilt, for having betrayed his wife with their young servant, mixed in equal parts with Elizabeth’s insecurity in her husband’s affection. Both know that Proctor must denounce Abigail, and both realize that he will have to confess his transgression to the community to be credible. Their relationship is real – it is no symbol – and McEleney gives it room to expand. Thorne trembles with troubled conscience and slowly budding resolve, while Brazil coolly controls her feelings. “Cool” and “control” are not qualities I have ever ascribed to Ms. Brazil’s acting, but they are apt descriptors here; she is the wonderful surprise of this show.

Other performances don’t fare as well. Reverend Samuel Parris is played by Bob Berky, who, the night I saw the show, was as rigid as a Puritan pew; his cadence was wooden, his posture uncomfortable. Fred Sullivan, Jr., as Thomas Putnam and, even more as Deputy Governor Danforth, was enigmatic. True to form, he has followed his authentic and awesome performance in “Absurd Person Singular” with a performance of exactly equal indifference. (I have only been watching for four years, but I wonder if one might follow this sinusoidal phenomenon throughout his career.) In “The Crucible,” he is fierce and inexplicable, like a summer squall. His instrument, his wonderful voice, is as sure and seductive as ever, but it is really just spit and wind. His Danforth is not fearful or paranoid or vulnerable or vengeful: he is just loud. Olivia D’Ambrosio plays Abigail; and I think “plays” is the right word for what she does with the role. She seems nearly to toy with it, an approach that usually pays off because, of course, Abigail herself is a kind of player. One senses her mastery, and, with her high cheekbones, vulpine eyes, and confident contralto, one can also understand John Proctor’s error. But the role calls for helplessness too, and D’Ambrosio is reluctant to surrender her power. When Abigail must pretend to be possessed by Mary Warren (Rachael Warren) in court in order to sustain the girls’ charade, D’Ambrosio can’t quite summon the necessary girlishness. It is an unconvincing performance within a performance.

D’Ambrosio, of course, is not to blame for the play’s failure, but her inability to access the spiritual anarchy of that historical moment is emblematic of the entire production, which is too measured and controlled. McEleney presents the play as a conclusion rather than an exploration, draining it of contingency and excitement: since we all know what it's about, anyway, there's no reason to evoke a specific time, place, or mood. He leans heavily on the play’s stature and keeps the audience at a long arm’s length. It is an allegory, too refined and remote to be mistaken for a yarn. McEleney has a mission, and “The Crucible” serves his ends. “You will not use me!” John Proctor shouts, in the play’s climactic scene. In this production, at least, his insistence goes unheeded.