Appleseed explores the witch hunts and madness of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible
By James MacKillop
Most playwrights, like all writers, yearn for immortality—for at least a few generations. How pleasing it is to think that one’s art, one’s deepest feelings, will live on and be performed again and again. At least two of Arthur Miller’s plays, Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, have long since been dubbed “canonical.” Not only are these works that anyone with any pretense to familiarity with modern drama are supposed to know, but they have been taught to three generations of high school students. Perhaps a million term papers have been written explaining The Crucible’s relationship with the McCarthy paranoia of the 1950s. Such a familiarity is also a burden to a director. How does one make the thing fresh and gripping again?
Enter Dan Tursi, one of the area’s most familiar and admired directors. His own company is Rarely Done Productions, implying that he favors the new and little seen. We’ve gotten to know a lot about his taste in recent years, favoring the edgy, the darkly satirical and the outrageously hilarious. The liberal angst and prosy forthrightness of The Crucible hardly sounds like Tursi’s thing. Upon examination, however, we learn that Tursi has been associated with The Crucible several times before, having directed productions under Todd Ellis’ Syracuse Civic Theatre aegis for school audiences during the day.
In making it new this time, for Appleseed Productions at the Atonement Lutheran Church, 116 W. Glen Ave., Tursi has had plenty of opportunity to explore the text with different players and attempt new readings and blocking. There are no director’s notes in the program for The Crucible, but some of Tursi’s decisions are evident within the first few moments of action.
He favors mostly new faces, even though his Rolodex must have the names of 80 percent of the performers in town. Secondly, he sees the play as a drama of character rather than politics. These two decisions are intertwined and affect one another. It’s not that the production has no experienced players; as C.J. Young, Appleseed’s founder, appears as Deputy Governor Danforth, dominating the action in the last half-hour. Having mostly unfamiliar faces, however, means it will take us some moments of reflection before we decide where to pin our emotions.
Because The Crucible depicts a real, historical “witch hunt,” a phrase now used as a metaphor, there’s a temptation to see the persecution of the obviously innocent as a war between good guys and bad guys. No less than Jean-Paul Sartre succumbed to this trap when he adapted the play for the French film Witches of Salem (1957) with handsome leading man Yves Montand as the victim of a miscarriage of justice. A knowledge of politics may help us to make prudent decisions in life; carrying too much in with us to the theater reduces the chances of our engaging in emotional and moral conflict.
At the center of the 17 speaking roles is flawed everyman John Proctor, played by Darian Sundberg, making his first local stage appearance. When the play was last revived in New York City in 2002, Proctor was tall, blond Liam Neeson, a soft-spoken hunk projecting gentle strength and self-possession. Sundberg’s Proctor, in contrast, is dark and disheveled, his long hair falling in his face, sometimes keeping us from seeing his eyes. In having seen 10 productions of this drama, including two movie versions, your reporter cannot recall seeing a less ingratiating Proctor. Such an interpretation is completely justified in the text as Proctor stands a bit apart from the community, no longer attending church services. His treatment of the pastor, vain but hellfire-preaching Reverend Parris (Jeremiah Thompson), is unapologetically surly. In Tursi’s interpretation, Proctor’s treatment is still outrageous, but he feels more like an existential hero. Not only is he falsely accused by crazed liars, but he’s a bit “different.”
Hinda Crewell, cast to play wife Elizabeth in the Proctors’ unhappy marriage, has appeared in small roles at Appleseed, never leads, but she’s ready for this one. Given to Puritan scowls, she looks older than her husband and projects an unmis takable chill in the Proctor household.
Adultery is never justified, of course, but Tursi helps us to understand how John’s all-too-weak flesh might have succumbed to temptation. Crewell’s Elizabeth is appropriately layered, however. In Miller’s brilliantly written scene, Elizabeth’s denial of her husband’s sin, her words a lie to express her constant love, paradoxically seals his fate.
The quest for new faces brings in six age-appropriate females to give us the youngsters dancing not-so-innocently in the forest, as well as the hallucinating accusers. Every one of these works right on the mark, starting with Reverend Parris’ stricken daughter Betty (Lauren Koss) and the slave girl brought from the Barbados, Tituba (Serika M. Jones). They and their pals Susanna Walcott (Julie Swenson) and Mercy Lewis (Emily Badyzlo) deliver screaming hallucinations during the hearings to knock you off your chair as well as to convince otherwise intelligent adults that the devil was in their midst.
Two of the girls must carry more dramatic weight. Mary Warren (Erin Griffin) is the Proctor household servant, sometimes badly treated by John, who triggers the courtroom hysteria, not without her personal motivations. A role with much bigger responsibility is that of Abigail Williams (Kathleen Kennedy), Proctor’s correspondent in adultery. As she is underage (Kennedy is a senior at Nottingham High School), Abigail is legally a victim, underscored by her passive, innocent persona.
In a scene often cut but here restored in front of the stage, Abigail is revealed as a hot pants seductress, deeply rattled to learn that Proctor pledged to confess everything, including her guilt.
Two subplots not yet mentioned touch on other issues playwright Miller wished to address, pertaining to financial and intellectual life. Giles Corey (Tim Bennett) feels besieged because weasely witness Thomas Putnam (David Vickers) covets his 600 acres of land and quantity of timber. Corey has complained that his wife spent too much time reading books, suspi-cious behavior suggestive of witchcraft.
Reverend Hale (Paul Steffens) is the most allegorical figure in the drama, kind of an academic sellout. An “expert” on witchcraft who knows what rubbish the trials are, he counsels lying to escape. Steffens, yet another newcomer, speaks with the refined diction that should put him in demand for many roles in the near future.
“required reading” has not ruined Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. With
provocative interpretation and a host of new faces, it still crackles
with dramatic energy.
This production runs through Saturday, Nov. 5. See Times Table for information.