Lost Nation Theater’s production of The Crucible groans under the weight of the classic play. The company has tackled all the difficulties in staging it: assembling a large cast of solid actors, opening up the playing space to accommodate bold movement in an in-the-round setting that conjures up the feeling of a trial and creating 17th-century costumes. But these strong efforts are not enough to breathe life into the 1953 Tony Award winner.
Though playwright Arthur Miller’s social conscience leaves him at risk of polemics, he finds the human sorrow at the heart of drama. The Crucible is an allegory for the McCarthy hearings, in which the only way to be safe from the committee’s censure was to accuse others of being un-American, lying if necessary. When Miller found rich parallels in the Salem witch trials, his dramatic intelligence allowed him to distill the story into character-driven tragedy. The language may be archaic and the situation overwrought, but the play has tragic power above and beyond its didactic aspect.
The story begins with conflicting accounts of what some young girls did in the forest one night. They indulged in little more than idle curiosity about magic, but suspicion in the town quickly fastens on satanic rites. It’s clear that awful punishment awaits, and that the best way out is to claim to have seen the Devil in someone else’s company. The naming of names begins, and soon no one is safe from unjust accusation.
This production stumbles from the start by deciding to depict that forest scene, which Miller pointedly did not include. All we see is choreographed frolicking; in a blackout all we hear is an ambiguous scream. Making it tangible implies the audience needs proof of innocence when the play runs on the fuel of the shadows of doubts and a kernel of truth.
Director Brett Gamboa stages the show with dutiful seriousness, but the fastidious effort to summon up the imagined reality of 1692 Salem results in characters of stiff formality. Perhaps the Puritans were that rigid and prone to melodrama, but Miller’s play isn’t going to work if we cannot imagine ourselves in the world depicted. More important, it will not frighten us. That’s the crucial ingredient in the play, because Miller’s point is lost unless the audience is afraid. Not of hokey, Puritan superstitions but of what social groups can do when blending paranoia, power, greed and a little lust. Keeping this play alive means showing where surveillance, fundamentalism, guilt by association and mass hysteria inevitably lead. It can’t be done by pinning them up like dead butterflies. The dangers have to be unleashed and felt.
By draining the production of social and political intensity, Gamboa takes us through a museum exhibit. The tools Miller used to create an allegory potent enough to give the term “witch hunt” its modern meaning are all on display, but they are silent.
What the production lacks in vision, however, it makes up for in craft. Lost Nation has admirable intentions and has marshaled all the resources needed to stage this major play. See it to applaud their efforts and to draw your own conclusions about how Miller’s text holds up after 60 years.
Gamboa’s staging is physically strong, and he skillfully focuses our attention in the large playing space on both mass confrontations and intimate conversations. The action unfolds with a brisk pace but allows each moment to have meaning.
The cast of 18 includes standout performances by Emme Erdossy as Rebecca Nurse, the good soul who’s incapable of guilt and too pure to pander to the court; and Scott Renzoni as Reverend Hale, the clerical intellectual who realizes with horror that these trials have left him with blood on his hands. As members of the court, Vince Rossano and Tim Tavcar both show the little delight that evil men cannot fully mask, try as they might to pretend they’re driven only by higher purposes.
As John Proctor, Paul Riopelle projects a pleasant ease that helps us care for him. Miller has given Proctor the flaws that drive the tragedy of the play, and Riopelle shoulders them dutifully but without much emotional nuance. Only in his final scene, when he must battle between his conscience and the court’s absurd demands, does the agony Miller intended emerge.
The set is simple but effective. A water-based haze fills the playing space to make the lights misty cones of illumination. Along with the bare branches tangled artfully overhead and the menacing suggestion of a gallows looming above, the effect is solemn and imposing
The costumes work hard to summon the period. The trouble with producing nearly two dozen 17th-century costumes is that false notes will ring. But after we forgive the unscuffed boots and ill-fitting coats, the larger issue is whether period dress helps or hurts the play’s impact today. The quaintness of the unflattering costumes is just another occasion to distance ourselves from the play’s message.
The decision to immerse us in 1692 Salem means that the play needs to use timeless human qualities to enmesh us in the story. Too often, the actors were asked to hoist up an abstract idea and proclaim its significance. Instead of letting emotion emerge, the acting style solemnized the script.
Miller’s play unlocks some great truths about fear. It shows how a strict, repressive society can explode into hysteria and how those with the best and worst intentions will wield power until it terrorizes. This production instead presents a remote, historical drama.
"The Crucible" by Arthur Miller, directed by Brett Gamboa, produced by Lost Nation Theater. Thursdays through Sundays, October 17 through 27: Thursdays and Sunday, October 20, at 7 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, October 27, at 2 p.m., Montpelier City Hall Auditorium. $25/30. lostnationtheater.org
The original print version of this article was headlined "Devil in the Details"