By Manning Harris
Actor’s Express is starting its 29th season with a riveting, terrifying, luminous production of Arthur Miller’s all too timely play “The Crucible,” running through Feb. 19, directed by Freddie Ashley. It deals with the infamous Salem (Massachusetts) witch trials of 1692, when at least 19 people were hanged.
In his program notes, Mr. Ashley mentions that it seems we’re living in a time where “reason has given way to emotion.” Aristotle wrote 2,400 years ago that “reason, more than anything else, is man.” His favorite playwright Sophocles (“Oedipus the King”) demonstrated the perverse horrors that often occur when man abandons his capacity to reason.
Human nature has not changed; when xenophobia, hysteria, and unalloyed fear are given free reign, unproved accusations and “alternative facts” become truth in a “post-truth” world. This poisonous atmosphere infects the denizens of Salem, just as it did in the McCarthy communist blacklisting era of the early 1950’s, which inspired Miller’s play.
A group of girls dance at night in the forest with Tituba (Vallea E. Woodbury), a black slave who is said to have the power to commune with the dead. They are caught by Rev. Parris (Charles Green), whose daughter Betty (Lucy Gross) lies comatose. Parris questions Abigail Williams (Shelli Delgado), his niece and the girls’ leader, but she claims they were only dancing.
“Present fears are less than horrible imaginings,” said Macbeth. Rumors of witchcraft begin spreading like wildfire. John Proctor (Jonathan Horne), a farmer, arrives and converses with Abigail, with whom he had a brief affair last year. He is under no illusions about her deviousness, but Abigail, to put it mildly, has her own agenda. She would like to continue the liaison, which Proctor now regrets; he wishes above all to regain the stability and trust of his wife Elizabeth (Courtney Patterson), whom we can only call a righteous woman.
The relationship between John and Elizabeth is intense, moving, and really the moral and emotional touchstone in the play, which becomes a nightmarish world of envy, power, and murderous lunacy. Mr. Horne and Ms. Patterson are perfectly cast; their humanity, their chemistry, their love are a palpable thing. They have only to look at each other for us to realize the depth of longing and sorrow they share; they make the tragedy of the ending well-nigh unbearable.
Meanwhile, Rev. Hale (Tamil Periasamy), an “expert” on witchcraft, arrives to examine and quiz the girls and the townspeople. Here is where the deadly “naming of names” begins; and soon the powerful, sinister Deputy Governor Danforth (expertly played by Bryan Davis) arrives and a frenzy of accusations ensues.
“The Crucible” is played pretty much at the top of the emotional range; therefore, it’s a relief when a character like farmer Giles Corey (Rial Ellsworth) is able to bring a bit of down-home folksiness to lighten the atmosphere—briefly. To a certain extent, Mr. Green’s Rev. Parris, who whines a bit about his salary and living conditions and sounds quite silly, does the same thing.
It’s a large cast, and they are uniformly quite fine: Kara Cantrell, Sean Alexander, Larry Davis, Greta M. Glenn, Luis R. Hernandez, Abby Holland, Falashay Pearson, Kiona D. Reese, Sundiata Rush, Mary Saville, Ryan Vo, Max Mattox, and John Osorio.
Kudos to scenic designer Pamela Hickey, lighting designer Joseph P. Monaghan III, and composer/sound designer Ed Thrower. Their contributions are stellar. Freddie Ashley’s direction and casting is impeccable.
I must return to Mr. Horne’s John Proctor and Ms. Patterson’s Elizabeth Proctor. Their partnership is haunting and ultimately heartbreaking. It’s partly because of the way Miller wrote them, but you must have the right actors. Ms. Patterson has never been better; her sincerity and gravitas are compelling.
Mr. Horne keeps fulfilling the promise he has shown in recent years; he is the most charismatic, committed, and talented actor in the city. When his John Proctor is led in near the end, beaten down but not broken, and his voice breaks when he utters a famous line, one’s eyes well, as he illuminates the madness and savagery around him. It’s an unforgettable moment.
And so is this “Crucible.” Its intensity is sometimes almost overwhelming, but it must be seen.
For tickets and information, visit actors-express.com.