“We are what we always were in Salem…”
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is a haunting exploration of community at its darkest and most self-destructive, a warning against the insidious force of brute illogic. This production, directed by Grace Cowie and produced by Hanna Lawson, made me realize how difficult a play The Crucible is to pull off, and how gutsy it is to tackle it on a student budget. The play presents a range of challenges, such as creating a space which can accommodate two people without feeling empty and twenty without feeling crowded. Natasha Mauer rose to the occasion, filling out the entire space with just two elements: three stained glass windows hanging in the back, and a plank floor painted onto the stage. The windows gave a splash of color to the otherwise muted palette and took advantage of the Byre’s height, drawing the eye upward and creating the illusion of a much larger, grander setting. The wood grain suggested the bare, puritan aesthetic, and made me wonder why so many Byre productions settle for a black stage by default; that little bit of paint added so much warmth and texture to the space. There was also platform at the back of the stage which, unfortunately, was never used by the actors. In a staging with so few visual elements and so many people, it did seem a shame to take up space with a superfluous set piece and not take advantage of an obvious way to vary levels.
Another challenge of the play is the sheer size of the cast – twenty-one characters, all told, none of them doubled up in this production. There were a number of excellent individual performances: Seb Allum captured the mixed bag that is John Proctor, Toby Poole delivered much-needed levity as Giles Corey, Alexandra Upton was pitifully imbalanced as Mary Warren, and Connor Norris commanded the stage as Judge Danforth. Lydia Seed was truly exceptional. She played Elizabeth Proctor with consummate control and left me wishing she did twice as much acting in St. Andrews, so that I could have the privilege of watching her more often.
On the whole, however, the cast suffered from a lack of cohesion – possibly due to its size. Energy was low throughout Act I, and pacing in general was slow (with the notable exception of the courtroom scene, which had me on the edge of my seat). The triangle of John, Elizabeth, and Abigail ought to be the focal point which keeps us from feeling like our attention is spread too thin over this massive cast of characters, but the John-Abigail dynamic didn’t quite click. Cameron Chavers had some excellent moments – the scene in Act I where Abigail first shows her true colors comes to mind – but I struggled to come to grips with Abigail on the whole. There was an innocence to Chavers’s performance which felt incongruous with Abigail as witch-hunter and master manipulator. It didn’t help that she was dressed in a snowy white shift; next to John and Elizabeth, Abigail seemed like a guileless child, and it was hard to believe that she could be capable of setting the trials in motion, let alone framing Elizabeth.
Still, The Crucible hit all the right emotional beats as a political play, communicating what it has since 1953: that witch hunts, in whatever form they may present themselves, are dangerous perversions of justice. Nearly seventy years after the McCarthy hearings, Miller is still forcing audiences to reconsider the nature of authority and oppression, and I applaud this team for giving him a fresh voice.