WaterTower elevates “‘The Crucible’ from dry classic to compelling thriller
Mark Twain defined a literary classic as a book everyone praises and nobody reads.
Theater can be that way, too. People talk lovingly about some plays but never actually stage them. Others do put them on, more out of duty than enthusiasm. After all, does a three-hour production about 300-year-old church politics sound like a moneymaker for a suburban theater troupe?
If you can do it as well as WaterTower Theatre does “The Crucible,” it might be.
This production is not only a more thrilling anatomy of a crime than shows like “CSI” have ever attempted, it is significantly more relevant.
Though more than 50 years old, Arthur Miller’s historically exact tale of the Salem Witch Trials the horrific inquisitions that left dozens executed after a clutch of mischievous schoolgirls randomly accused residents of the Puritanical Massachusetts town of witchcraft plays as if it could have been written after passage of the Patriot Act.
One night in 1692, after they are discovered dancing in the woods, several girls suddenly fall ill, then avoid scorn by accusing scores of neighbors of witchcraft. The ringleader is Abigail (Jenny Ledel), who had a torrid affair with a dour but respected farmer, John Proctor (Joe Nemmers). The brouhaha provides Abigail with a reason to accuse Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth (Shelley Tharp-Payton), thereby eliminating a romantic rival.
“The Crucible” ratchets up feelings of frustrations to nearly intolerable levels. It’s designed to make audiences angry: Why are people so quick to nurture their suspicions? If an accusation is tantamount to proof, why shouldn’t confessions be extracted with Abu Gharib-like efficiency?
If you’re not pulling your hair out at the end of Act 1, you don’t get it.
Director Terry Martin establishes an appropriately oppressive mood with ominous Bernard Herrmann-like music, dramatic lighting and a deceptively versatile set (designed by Clare Floyd Devries) that towers over the actors like a shadow of death.
He extracts some expert performances from his cast, especially from Nemmers, a charismatic and physical actor who broods with controlled desperation and Tharp-Payton, who goes from unsympathetic matron to steely martyr seamlessly.
Also notable are Steve M. Powell, whose well-timed comic relief cuts the tension at just the right moments; Chamblee Ferguson as the lone sensible voice of authority; and R. Bruce Elliott, who specializes in starchy judge-types who recklessly abuse power.
Part of the play’s brilliance is that it does not make over references to contemporary society. Miller wrote “The Crucible” in reaction to McCarthyism, but the themes of the destructiveness of rumor and innuendo transcend any one political regime.
Indeed, the message is stronger when you see that the damage caused by a witch-hunt (literally here, figuratively elsewhere) applies across the centuries. In turbulent social times, just seeing a play like “The Crucible,” especially one this good, is an act of political defiance.
Addison Theatre Centre, 15650 Addison Road, Addison. Through April 30. Wednesday-Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. $20-$30. 972-450-6220.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, April 14, 2006.