Arthur Miller’s shudder-filled tale of gossip, betrayal and fear is a thought-provoking social commentary on human tendencies in Cleveland Play House’s gripping production of “The Crucible,” playing on the Outcalt Theatre stage in the Allen Theatre Complex of Playhouse Square through November 8, 2015.
The powerful play takes place in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, and there is talk of witchcraft in the air. When a group of local girls is led by Abagail Williams (Katie O. Solomon) into the woods, their “strange dancing” is witnessed by Reverend Parris (Donald Carrier). Rumors swirl as the Reverend’s daughter Betty (Elise Pakiela) becomes ill after the forbidden event – could this be the work of dark magic?
As the play continues, the story reveals that there is more to the mysticism than can be seen. Director Laura Kepley’s vision captures a multi-layered tale that is loaded with longing, deceit, and the “old school” version of social media: a village-wide game of “Telephone” where the wrong information ends up in death via hanging for those found guilty of witchcraft.
The play forces the characters and the audience to pick a side: For or Against? Church or Devil? Court or Lawlessness? Good or Evil? Truth or Lies?
Spurring on the chaos in Salem is a 17th century group of Mean Girls lead by Abigail. Mercy Lewis (Megan King), Mary Warren (Mahira Kakkar), and Betty are (unknowingly) all part of Abigail’s larger plan to either win back or eventually shame her former boss and secret lover, a very married John Proctor (Esau Pritchett).
The girls are at first frightened that they were witnessed in the forest with the servant Tituba (Socorro Santiago), but when Reverend John Hale (Ben Mehl) and Rebecca Nurse (Dorothy Silver) come to assess the situation for its spiritual or demonic merits, the girls twist the situation to their advantage and turn the tiny town upside down with speculation, lies and possession panic. But what happens when one of them tries to make things right?
The well-written American classic is superbly directed and commandingly acted by the company. Themes of social norms / expectations, peer pressure, mass hysteria, and the main channels of communication being biased are just as relevant today.
Human struggles haven’t changed, as is evident through the riveting performances. Pritchett’s portrayal of John Proctor’s attempts to redeem himself with his wife, and to win his inner fight with his own pride versus living a false life are heartbreaking and enthralling to watch.
Watching Mehl weave through Reverend Hale’s soul-battle is epic, as the manipulation of facts mixed in with his conflict with dogma leaves him dealing with the town’s mass hallucination / delusion, and as one voice screaming in a coerced crowd.
The story seems to beckon to the audience: What would you do if you were forced to taking a stand and die for the right reasons, or to lie to keep living in falsehood? The play is a moving, chilling reminder that we as humans all have morals and beliefs that may not be shared by all people, or can be misconstrued by others. With the news and social media so prevalent in our world, would Abigail’s story have flown in today’s gossipy society? Would it be blown out of proportion? Or quelled immediately?
Adding to the rich story, thoughtful direction and potent acting are the impressive design elements. The wood and metal set (Scenic Design by Scott Bradley) is a multi-level platform that starts in an “up” position, creating tiers of texture and playing space. Walking into the Outcalt, the audience is drawn into the woods in a far-back time. During the performance, the platform is lowered, creating the other space where the drama unfolds. The lights (Lighting Design by Mary Louise Geiger) are dim and eerie, and the sounds (Sound Design by Jane Shaw) are the subtle, natural sounds of the forest. The place creates a feeling of restlessness and of many unknowns to come. With Costume Design by Lex Liang and Wig Design by Wigs and Whiskers, the production is a success in pulling the audience into a long-past place.
“The Crucible” runs through November 8, 2015 in the Outcalt Theatre. Tickets are $20-$90. For single tickets, call 216-241-6000 or visit www.clevelandplayhouse.com. Groups of 10+ can save 40% on tickets by calling Group Sales at 216-400-7027.