Despite its faults, City Theatre's staging stirs up strong emotions
Reviewed by Elizabeth Cobbe, Fri., Nov. 5, 2010
City Theatre, 3823-D Airport, 524-2870, www.citytheatreaustin.org
Through Nov. 14
Running time: 3 hr.
With all the current talk among conservatives of Founding Fathers and the originators of our nation, it would be interesting to see how tea partiers might compare what they see in The Crucible with their vision of a Puritan beacon on the hill.
Arthur Miller's play about Puritan life is, of course, as much a fabrication as their political vision, but it points to a dark, dark truth. In another era, when Miller wrote The Crucible, the narrative's mass hysteria resonated with a society awash in paranoia over supposed communists. Now, what leaps forth is the terrifying yet fascinating ability of people to believe what they wish to believe despite all reason and evidence to the contrary.
In 1692, Salem, Mass. – a community of Puritan farm families who worked from sunup to sundown – became the scene of a massive frenzy of witchcraft trials and convictions. In Miller's telling, a handful of teenage girls grasping at power in a life that denies them any sort of authority cause the disruption. Also, given the specter of hangings, whippings, and corporal punishment for the slightest infraction, their hysteria over the devil's influence wasn't hard to fake. A life lived in the very legitimate fear of authority, sickness, and murderous raids by American Indians (whose lands you've conveniently stolen, but that's material for another review) is a life easily manipulated.
John Proctor (Brian Villalobos), a hardworking, honest farmer, and his family and friends find themselves caught up in the wave of witchcraft prosecutions, thanks to Abigail Williams (Angela Loftus), a former servant girl with deep resentments. The Crucible is about the cost of staying true to one's good name.
City Theatre's productions run the gamut from good to amateurish, and The Crucible is one of its better shows. For a small theatre, it has attracted a fairly strong lineup for such a large cast. As Elizabeth Proctor, Rachel McGinnis turns in another excellent performance. Austin's theatre scene can be difficult to break into, given the shortage of shows that cast from auditions, but hopefully other companies will take note that she has become an actor worth watching. Laura Ray's performance as poor Mary Warren, the young girl who tries but can't bring herself to reveal the hoax, is also good.
Stacey Glazer's direction goes far but not always far enough. It's basic stuff. For example, yelling isn't always the strongest choice for a scene with high emotion; sometimes a quiet voice carries more weight. The end of The Crucible is tough to watch, but it should carry a feeling of triumph as well as tragedy, and that sense of triumph is lacking here.
Above all, a director needs actors who know their lines. It should not need saying: It is the height of disrespect to the audience for actors not to know their lines, especially on the second week of the run. If actors cannot memorize their lines, they should not be onstage.
On the night I attended, the audience was clearly hooked. At intermission, someone sitting near me announced to the house, "I'm gonna punch Abigail in the face!" (He meant the character, not Loftus.) I applaud any theatre production that, despite its faults, can stir up such emotion as it explores such a difficult subject.