by Adam M. Schenck
Part of growing up in our country as a late adolescent is reading what is called classic American literature. The teacher tells the sixth- through ninth-graders, “This is important! This matters!” But children at that age do not have a reference for what is important.
Like you perhaps, my first interaction with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible was during that purgatorial youthful period. I regarded reading as afterthought and inconvenience, but with time, I have come to understand text and its interpretation as essential to plumbing our individual and collective conditions.
Joe Dowling’s version of The Crucible takes what is best about this “classic” piece of drama and recreates it for our time. Instead of telling us that the play’s conflicts matter, this production shows us that the forces of ignorance, accusation, and public confession come with the best intentions. The institutions we so strive to trust are only extensions of our fallible humanity.
You may know the episode of the Salem Witch Trials, where in colonial Massachusetts a small group of girls created a scandal, which colonial authorities turned into a trial that resulted in the execution of twenty people. The play, however, takes historical liberties to create its drama. Dowling’s production, like Miller’s script, shows how the potential for extremism, sensationalism, and the grim exertion of power live with us in our communities.
One epiphany which occurred to me now, but not in my reading of this play in middle school, is just how foolish and misled men in power can become. The play opens with a choreographed dance number from the witch-accusers. If anything, I would have liked more choreography of this kind in the play, since both are executed so well with dance, sound, and lighting. Of course, the men are dazzled by this display of female sexuality.
The conflict of the play becomes one man’s (John Proctor, as played by national actor Erik Heger) quest to quell his society’s collective insanity, an effort which of course envelops him the trial. Heger is brilliant, and this cast is chockfull of talent, including perennial Minneapolis theater scenesters Wendy Lehr (as Rebecca Nurse), Bill McCallum (Rev. Samuel Parris), John Catron (Rev. John Hale), Peter Michael Getz (Giles Corey), and Stephen Yoakam (Deputy-Governor Danforth). The best and brightest in the Minneapolis theater scene must have wanted to honor Joe Dowling by contributing to his final production.
The behind-the-scenes talent showed up to work as well. The set design (Richard Hoover) creates the spectral quality of Salem; the sound design (from Scott W. Edwards) animates the action; blocking and movement (Carl Flink) lends simplicity and excitement to Miller’s thick dialogue. Even the turgid courtroom dialogue flows with D’Arcy Smith’s voice and dialect coaching.
Worth noting, however, is that this political-social drama is not for everyone. This play is right at three hours long including one intermission. The diagesis (or world of the play) is miserably Puritan, dour, and largely immune to humor (owing to the material more than the cast). The catch-22 theme—if you deny being a witch, then you are one and will be executed; if you confess, you must name the others—gets restated more ways than one could expect.
For this reviewer, however, this revival of The Crucible represents the best of what the Guthrie has to offer: talent, direction, organization, vision. In a word: high production-value theater. I could not recommend this experience more—especially if you have not read the play since adolescence.
The Guthrie Theatre’s production of The Crucible runs on the Wurtele Thrust Stage at 818 S 2nd St, Minneapolis, MN 55415. You may see this play from April 11 to May 24. Consult <http://www.guthrietheater.org/plays_events/plays/_crucible> for more information.