Reviewed by George Basler
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is a classic play that deals with the ideas of personal honor and mass hysteria. It is also considered a classic of American drama and, as such, is a much studied work.
The downside of this distinction is that the word “classic” comes with its own baggage, making a play seem a daunting experience that is worthwhile, but not particularly inviting.
But don’t let those feelings keep you away from The Ti-Ahwaga Community Players production, which opened this past weekend at the Owego playhouse and will run through Oct. 23.
As directed by James Osborne, the production is a thoroughly absorbing one that engages the emotions as well as the intellect. The large, 18-member cast does a commendable job with a challenging play.
In writing the play, Miller was using the infamous Salem, Mass., witch trials of 1692 and 1693 as an allegory for the Joseph McCarthy era of the late 1940s and 1950s. The time was marked by government investigations that targeted and smeared left-leaning intellectuals and artists as Communists. Miller himself was caught up in this campaign after being called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
The McCarthy era has receded into history, but Miller’s play remains as relevant as ever as it focuses on how people, who see themselves as basically good, can be caught up in fear and resentment when confronted with events that challenge their belief systems.
Some react heroically; some react cravenly. Ultimately, however, the hysteria tears the community apart.
At the performance I attended, the Ti-Ahwaga production dragged a bit at the start as the cast seemed to have difficulty catching the rhythm of the action. But it caught fire after the first scene and steadily built momentum. A courtroom scene in the second act was particularly well played.
Osborne has opted for simplicity in staging the action, which is all to the good. The mostly bare set, nicely designed by Osborne and Diane Arbes, emphasizes the universality of Miller’s theme. As Osborne writes in his director’s notes: “You will not view a Puritan-based Salem … but an anonymous, indefinable setting of period, time and place … that take on the play’s themes of intolerance, reputation, hysteria and ultimate anarchy.”
Another good choice is to avoid over-the-topic antics in staging the demonic fits of the teenage girls. Instead the scenes are played in an understated manner to chilling effect.
Among the production’s strong points are compelling performances by Shane Smith and Talia Saraceno as John and Elizabeth Proctor, whose travails drive the play’s action.
Proctor, a local farmer, is an essentially decent man who is haunted by the fact that he has betrayed his wife through a sexual encounter with the teenage girl who has hatched the witchcraft charges.
The character requires a larger-than-life performance, and Smith delivers that. In fact, his acting is a little overheated at times with yelling replacing a more subtle approach. Still, Smith commands the stage and, for the most part, effectively catches the character’s sense of guilt and growing anger. His final confrontation with authorities, when his sense of personal honor leads him to reject action that could save his life, is especially well done.
Saraceno has the less showy role. While the character is a sympathetic one, Elizabeth is not a person who wears her emotions on her sleeve. Saraceno has to depend on body language and subtle facial expressions to show her character’s inner strength and deep-seated love for her husband. The performance is an effectively restrained one.
Anna Simek does a credible job in the difficult role of Abigail Williams, whose sexual encounter with Proctor and subsequent lies precipitate the witchcraft trials.
The character, as played by Smith, is less a cold-blooded manipulator than a spoiled brat who lies to cover up her misdeeds. While the portrayal is a solid one, Simek falls a bit short in conveying the full force of Abigail’s personality that can bend others to her will.
The rest of the large cast acquits itself well in supporting roles. Laurie Brearley is moving as Rebecca Nurse, a midwife and voice who comes a victim of the hysteria. Tony DeLousia is suitably contemptible as Reverend Parris, the self-pitying and hypocritical minister. Laura Robertson has fine moments in conveying the fear and anguish of Mary Warren, who breaks under pressure as she attempts to do the right thing. Mike Noone is commanding as Deputy-Governor Danforth.
One of the most interesting performances comes from Stan Zawatsky as Reverend John Hale. The character starts out as an accuser and ends up a denier who urges prisoners to perjure themselves to save their lives. Is he to be admired or reviled? Zawatsky makes the character’s inner turmoil completely believable.
Other cast members are also solid in smaller roles. They include Amanda Riveras, Adara Alston, Austin Nichols and Ron Creighton.
The sound effects by Keith Nichols heightens the play’s ominous tone.
The cover of the Ti-Ahwaga playbill notes: “A city on the hill can only be destroyed from within.” The production clearly makes that point while being thoroughly entertaining.
IF YOU GO: The Crucible will run weekends through Oct. 23 at the Ti-Ahwaga Performing Arts Center, 42 Delphine St., Owego. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 p.m.; Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 for general admission, or $18 for students and seniors. Purchase at www.tiahwaga.com.