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article imageReview: Soulpepper's 'Crucible' remount in Toronto still full of power Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Sep 5, 2014 in Entertainment
Toronto - “Death of a Salesman” may be Arthur Miller’s most revered play, but “The Crucible”, his 1953 drama about the seventeenth-century witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, holds up as his most stinging study of evil and hypocrisy in human nature.
That’s why Toronto’s Soulpepper theatre company has made the right choice in remounting its acclaimed 2012 production of the play, helmed by company artistic director Albert Schultz. The Crucible is occasionally dismissed as a dated, overly obvious parable about 1950s McCarthyism, but a fresh reading shows that it’s really a timeless story about dignity, guilt, self-honesty, betrayal, conformity, mob hysteria, baseless persecution and the value of one’s good name. Schultz’ solid and powerful staging, which reopened last night, proves it.
Faithful to the basic history while incorporating hefty dramatic licence in the characters and plot specifics, The Crucible depicts the Salem madness from the point of view of John Proctor (Stuart Hughes), a respected farmer whose wife, Elizabeth (Laura Condlln), is one of the many accused by a group of young girls in Salem. The chief accuser is seventeen-year-old Abigail (Hailey Gillis), with whom Proctor once had an ill-advised affair – and who presumably wants to get his wife out of the way. All of this takes place amidst a rough, puritanical, early American settlement, so paranoid about religion and illicit sex that even dancing is considered a tool of the devil. Church and state are virtually the same here. Because accusers are considered the only reliable witnesses in these cases, accused people must either confess guilt or pay the ultimate price.
As the frenzy builds and dozens of women face possible hanging for supposedly trafficking with Satan – including Rebecca Nurse (Nancy Palk), a near-saintly septuagenarian who’s well-loved in the community – Proctor finds himself in the unenviable position of having to admit his lechery to the court, as the only way to undermine Abigail and save his wife and several friends. This dilemma leads to one of the most suspenseful scenes in the play, in which a deputy governor (Joseph Ziegler) confronts Elizabeth about the truth of the affair in front of most of the cast, without allowing her to consult her husband. Schultz blocks and paces this moment perfectly, with Hughes and Gillis facing the audience at separate corners of the stage, their facial reactions in plain view as Ziegler interrogates Condlln. It’s a high-stakes nail-biter, and it pays off.
There are other very strong scenes, including Proctor’s and Elizabeth’s meeting in the jailhouse, and Schultz handles much of the play with a deft hand. The pacing of the opening scene, set in the attic of Reverend Samuel Parris (Derek Boyes), often feels rushed and lacking in pauses or distinct beats, but the suspense starts to build nicely once you visit Proctor’s home and get more intimate with the premise. Additionally, Lorenzo Savoini’s largely wooden set and period costumes do a good job of suggesting the rustic, isolated time and place.
The success of this play depends largely on the actor playing Proctor, and Hughes is in fine form here. A naturally likeable and affable performer, Hughes wins you to his side easily in spite of Proctor’s flaws; though abusive to his servant Mary Warren (Mikaela Davies) and occasionally quick-tempered, his Proctor still earns sympathy through his inability to suffer fools gladly and his impatience with hypocrisy, especially his own.
Also very good is Oliver Dennis’ Reverend John Hale, a visiting witchery expert who initially supports the hunt but soon comes to denounce the injustices of it. Dennis balances Hale’s intellectual authority with the right style of patience and gentleness. One of the emotional highlights of this production is his later monologue expressing deep remorse for his participation in the persecutions. “Cleave to no faith when faith brings blood,” he says, much too late to save Salem. “No principle, however glorious, may justify the taking of [life].”
Palk also makes a strong impression in her limited stage time as the kindly, soft-spoken Rebecca, and Ziegler’s Danforth commands the stage with a mix of weary authority and by-the-books rigidity. As aging villager Giles Corey, William Webster exudes both baffled, senile bemusement and moments of unexpected wisdom; he earns some of the play’s few laughs with his ironic remarks.
But the young actors playing the accusing girls are the cast’s main weak link. Gillis’ shallow portrayal of Abigail doesn’t convey the manipulative quality to make you believe she could cause all this trouble, while Davies’ later betrayal of Proctor has little nuance. In addition, Boyes lacks the villainous edge that Reverend Parris requires; he comes off more as a weak, well-meaning fool than as a vain, corrupt authority figure. And Peter Fernandes’ stiff turn in the small but vital role of Ezekiel Cheever is a waste; as a former friend of Proctor turned mindless court clerk, Cheever has potential for deeper levels, but Fernandes plays him as a one-dimensional, dutiful bureaucrat.
Overall, it’s Miller’s words that carry the show and prove it to be universally moving and relevant. It doesn’t matter whether you interpret the period setting as 1692, 1952 or 2014; this play has many timeless things to say. Danforth’s frightening proclamation that “a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it” now can’t help reminding you of a certain former American president. When Hale blurts in frustration, “Is every defence an attack upon the court?”, you may think of the way modern Christian conservatives turn every differing point of view into a theological war – the War on Drugs, the War on Christmas and so on.
And Proctor’s query, “Is the accuser always holy now? Were they born this morning as clean as God’s fingers?”, seems to call for second thoughts about the emerging “Believe The Accuser No Matter What” approach to sexual crimes and presumption of innocence... but I’ll stop there, as that’s a tricky area and I don’t want to get in trouble over it. (Again.)
If you missed it in 2012, catch this brief remount of Soulpepper’s Crucible while you still can. It’s really worth it.
The Crucible runs at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until September 20.
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