Review: 'The Crucible' Is an Educational Goldmine at Bay Street
The debut of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible at Bay Street Theater marked the 15th anniversary of the Literature Live! performance series, which serves as a free teaching tool for local schools and engrossing entertainment for general audiences.
The student-focused nature of Lit Live! shows doesn’t mean that adults have nothing to learn from them; in fact, this Bay Street production explores relevant themes of paranoia, blind faith, hypocrisy, false accusations and the consequences that follow.
Directed by Will Pomerantz, the show’s cast consists entirely of professional actors who call the East End home. Allen O’Reilly brings a deliciously conniving energy to the part of Reverend Samuel Parris. Gabriel Portuondo plays Thomas Putnam with great gusto, which contrasts with the timid Reverend John Hale portrayed by Keith Reddin.
Similarly, spouses John Proctor and Elizabeth Proctor, played by Joe Pallister and Meg Gibson, convey a similarly juxtaposed intensity dynamic, with Gibson embodying the saint-like Elizabeth effortlessly. Kate Fitzgerald masterfully captured the show’s driving force, Abigail Williams, and her performance was complemented by the emotional range of Anna Francesca Schiavoni as Mary Warren and the scene-stealing charm of Sonnie Betts as Mercy Lewis.
Teresa DeBerry gives a wonderful performance as both Ann Putnam and Rebecca Nurse, and Matthew Conlon’s late introduction as Deputy-Governor Danforth leaves the audience wishing he’d appeared sooner.
For those who need a refresher since reading or seeing the play in school, The Crucible is set in the early 1690s during the infamous witch trials of Salem, Massachusetts. In the forest outside the deeply religious Puritan town, a young Abigail convinces her friends and Tituba, an enslaved Barbadian woman owned by Abigail’s uncle Parris, to perform a ritual dance that Abigail hopes will place a fatal curse on Elizabeth, the wife of her secret love John Proctor.
Though the intention of the ritual remains hidden from townsfolk, Abigail claims to them that Tituba forced her to perform it, and Tituba counters that it was Abigail who forced her. In a tragic but predictable “he said, she said” moment, consensus sides with the white Christian, and the Black foreigner is forced to confess to witchcraft and accuse others of the same, or else be beaten to death. Abigail seizes this opportunity to maximize the effectiveness of her chosen scapegoat and begins falsely accusing various townspeople, mostly women, of being witches.
Well, that’s how the tragedy of The Crucible kicks off in the original 1953 script. In an effort to tighten up the four-act play into a concise, engaging 90-minute show with no intermission, Pomerantz and the Bay Street team cut the character of Tituba almost entirely. She’s mentioned briefly in the description of the girls’ naked dancing in the woods, but her role as the catalyst for the witchcraft accusations, albeit unwillingly, has been given to Abigail, emphasizing her role as the town’s manipulative puppeteer.
From a casting perspective, it is a bit disappointing to see the only canonical character of color removed — though Bay Street has a glowing track record of colorblind casting, including in this show — but Tituba’s diminished presence in the story also changes the themes at the forefront of the script.
One theme affected by the abridged retelling ties back to Miller’s inspiration for writing The Crucible: the McCarthyism of the 1950s, when the “us versus them” mindset was at a peak in the U.S. and hatred for people who didn’t conform to American ideals was disguised as a genuine fear that the acceptance of “others” (Communists and homosexuals at the time) would destroy society from within.
As the only non-white, non-Christian, non-American person in the play, Tituba was the obvious “other” and was treated as such when the town quickly pinpointed her as the source of their perceived witchcraft problem.
With Tituba gone, however, the twisted love triangle between John and Elizabeth Proctor and Abigail takes center stage and shines in its dark complexity. While his wife was ill before the events of the play, John slept with his teenage servant Abigail, and though he’s now trying to distance himself from the lovestruck minor, she’s unable to move on. Abigail then accuses Elizabeth of witchcraft to remove her from the picture and has convinced herself that with John’s wife gone, he’ll be able to reciprocate her love.
Kate Fitzgerald plays Abigail with mesmerizing conviction. Often turned toward the audience, hiding her face and true intentions from the townsfolk, Fitzgerald’s microexpressions reveal every scheme concocted and opportunity seized in real time. However, her cold demeanor, bordering on sociopathic, can switch on a dime to crazed and unstable when the moment calls for a fake demonic possession.
On the surface, Abigail is the clear villain of The Crucible and John the hero. Joe Pallister portrays John Proctor with the commanding aura of a superhero. Not only do his powerfully delivered lines leave the audience hanging on his every word, but his mere presence onstage also emanates a quiet rage at each injustice and hypocrisy witnessed. Though John’s past isn’t spotless, he’s certainly held in a positive light in the play.
He’s the first to point out the Salem Puritans’ corruption and fear mongering, especially that of Reverend Parris who considers him a threat to his power. And when his wife is accused of witchcraft, John reveals to the deputy-governor his affair with Abigail, discrediting the holy prophet persona she’d adopted so she could cast baseless accusations without retaliation.
The tragic irony here is that even though John sets himself up to be the martyr making a stand for truth and accountability rather than passing the blame to others, pass blame he does. In The Crucible version of history, if John didn’t use his power over his teenage servant to sleep with her, Abigail wouldn’t have become understandably obsessed with him and used her power over her uncle’s slave to attempt a curse on Elizabeth.
Then Tituba (or Abigail) wouldn’t have been forced to accuse others of witchcraft, sending all of Salem into hysterics, and the Proctors wouldn’t have been put on trial for it. This point isn’t lost on the playwright, as Elizabeth does point out a similar domino effect, but lists her inability to keep John interested in her sexually as the first domino to fall. True to the historical Salem witch trials, characters like Abigail, Elizabeth and Tituba prove that in some societies the most reproachable “other” status one can have is being a woman. And that is really depressing.
Whether or not that’s the same conclusion that other audience members reach upon watching The Crucible at Bay Street Theater, it’s an impressive feat to get adults talking and thinking enough about school reading material written in the ’50s to get one to write a 1,200-word essay on the subject. Think how much more impactful it would be for a family with teenagers to see the show and discuss what the teens gleaned from it and what insights parents can offer.
As a Bay Street production, The Crucible is an impressive showcase of local talent — the acting, of course, but also the show-stopping lighting design by Justin Poruban and a soundtrack-worthy original score by David Brandenburg. And as a Literature Live! program, it’s a goldmine for education, discussion and critical thinking.
Bay Street Theater’s production of The Crucible runs through November 26. For tickets and more info, call 631-725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.