The Crucible

St. Ed's stages a chilling version of Arthur Miller's indictment of McCarthyism

Deliver us from evil: Sophia Franzella and Tyler Mount
Deliver us from evil: Sophia Franzella and Tyler Mount (Photo courtesy of Bret Brookshire)

The Crucible

Mary Moody Northen Theatre, 3001 S. Congress, 448-8484
Through Feb. 26
Running time: 2 hr., 20 min.

From the hilltop of the Mary Moody Northen Theatre, hysteria looms ominously over Austin. The good folks over at St. Edward's University have conjured up a chilling rendition of The Crucible, Arthur Miller's allegorical indictment of McCarthyism, the anti-Communist chaos that ensnared even the most sensible Americans a mere 60 years ago. Miller wrote that he had been moved by the "fact that a political, objective, knowledgeable campaign from the far Right was capable of creating not only a terror, but a new subjective reality."

So he grafted his 1952 qualms onto the Salem witch trials of 1692, creating a desperate and gripping – if not totally historically accurate – world in which compelling yet counterfeited accusations trump reason, law, and justice. When young Abigail Williams resolves to use black magic to murder Elizabeth Proctor, the upstanding wife of Abigail's onetime lover John Proctor, the ill-conceived plot quickly devolves into a frenzied witch hunt under the uncompromising authority of easily deceived Deputy Governor Danforth and zealous clergymen Parris and Hale. In spite of Hale and John Proctor's attempts to expose Abigail's elaborate ruse, even the most righteous townspeople find nooses around their necks.

The technical aspects of the St. Edward's production converge seamlessly to give life to this bleak world, with strikingly simple scenic design by Christopher McCollum – sturdy, versatile wood tables and benches that complement Susan Branch Towne's rich, detailed period costumes. Kathryn Eader's fine lighting design mirrors the play's alternating moments of chaos and stillness, and Buzz Moran's creepy sound design cleverly manipulates the audience's emotions, making us feel like we're in a well-made horror movie. Under the steady hands of director Michelle S. Polgar and vocal coach Sheila M. Gordon, the ensemble seemed to naturally inhabit the designers' setting with strikingly well-timed dialogue and precise movement. Among the strongest performances were those of Equity guest actors David Stahl, whose conviction made Danforth almost sympathetic, and Robin Grace Thompson, whose grace and subtle strength as Elizabeth Proctor stole the show. Also among the Equity actors were MMNT Artistic Director David M. Long as John Proctor and Michael Stuart as the bumbling Giles Corey.

Though these four older actors added great depth to the production, they occasionally stuck out against the texture of the St. Ed's students, many of whom played middle-aged or elderly characters with mixed success. But some students held their own, especially Johnny Joe Trillayes playing a nuanced Reverend Hale and Sophia Franzella as the terrifying, incorrigible Abigail. Despite these unavoidable casting difficulties, MMNT's The Crucible is a dark, searing pit of a production, as it well should be. I found myself wondering just how far removed we are from the McCarthyist hysteria of Miller's America.

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The Crucible, Mary Moody Northen Theatre, Michelle S. Polgar, Christopher McCollum, Susan Branch Towne, Kathryn Eader, Buzz Moran, Sophia Franzella, Robin Grace Thompson, David M. Long, David Stahl

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