Don’t miss this one: girls dancing naked, blood gulped around a fire, mysterious illnesses, sullied reputations, inquisitions by Church and State, verdicts of death by hanging, confessions of lying with the Devil become the only road to salvation and life! Then killer dialogue from the lips of the highest authority: “I cannot pardon these when twelve are already hanged for the same crime. It is not just.”
Who could argue with such sound logic?
In Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, the town of Salem, Massachusetts is brought to its moral knees as the voice of God speaks through “the children” and systematically condemns their elders to the rope. No evidence other than witnessing Lucifer’s work and being possessed by him is required to purge the god-fearing community of lechers, landowners and baby killers. Praise the Lord, raise the scaffold.
The Shaw Festival’s first production of the perils of witchcraft in the late seventeenth century is a compelling visual tour de force that, when it finds its rhythm and tone, will be rightly seen as a highlight of the current season.
From the opening sepia scrim—“into the woods” where witches play, Peter Hartwell’s vision of Puritan life is marvellously Spartan and functional. Teresa Przybylski’s costumes with their greys, blacks and period headdress add further verisimilitude. The promise of music and eerie whisperings add an opening chill that, sadly, is never rekindled. The stark hymn, led offstage by Reverend Samuel Parris (Ric Reid) while his devilishly ill daughter, Betty (Katie Cambone-Mannell, whose screeches of possession can peel paint) is examined, becomes a tiresome competitor to the actors in the attic. The Kronos-like contribution from the Blue Spruce String Quartet is especially apt and welcome, yet the single note “Danse macabre” violin call needs some bones in support of its otherwise tedious repetitions. Finally, the closing chorus convincingly brings the drama to an end if only the lyrics were declaimed with better diction ….
All of the above didn’t happen independently. Director Tadeusz Bradecki has a clear vision for Miller’s most allegorical work and has persuaded his colleagues and considerable cast to collectively shed light on the evil that men do in the name of power and glory.
Leading that charge is Benedict Campbell’s near-perfect portrayal of John Proctor—a devout farmer and family man who sleeps with his sometimes servant, Abigail Williams (Charlotte Gowdy) to ward off the chill of his plain wife Elizabeth (stoically given by Kelli Fox). As the nubile witches strive to protect their own lives, they take great pleasure in naming the names of those who they’ve seen in Satan’s company. Proctor’s world implodes as Elizabeth is arrested on the strength of a puppet (artfully made in court by Abigail’s replacement, Mary Warren who is skillfully fashioned by Trish Lindstrom). John holds the key to his wife’s release: confess to having “known” Abigail and the chief accuser’s testimony will be dismissed as the vengeful ravings expected of all harlots.
The judiciary go about their necessary work with practised efficiency. Highest on the bench is Deputy Governor Danforth. Jim Mezon’s take on the eager dispatcher of the damned is a solid testimony of willful blindness that inspires his collaborators to heady heights. His line, “A person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between,” will continue to resonate with audiences everywhere: some nodding in resigned agreement, others enumerating twenty-first century black magic of vanished weapons of mass destruction and inhumane treatment of prisoners in the struggle for ideology and fossil fuel.
Danforth’s partner in confessional crime is Reverend John Hale (played with fervoured passion by Peter Krantz). His own crucible comes seeing John Proctor’s miserable admission count for naught when the too-clever-by-half Governor chooses to ignore Elizabeth’s discreet acknowledgment of her husband’s infidelity, preferring the half-truths and bald fabrications of excitable wayward girls.
Others hold their ground and die for it. None better than Bernard Behrens’ heart-felt depiction of Giles Corey who knows the law from personal docket experience and has the last laugh on those who would steal his property (hello there Caledonia!). “More rocks” indeed.
The local vicar, appropriately salivating at the altar of personal gain aided and abetted by the devil-made-me-report-it court clerk (Guy Bannerman), Judge Hathorne (David Schurmann, happily enjoying the discomfort of others) and the flask-toting Marshal (Jeff Meadows) work together feverishly to arrest and convict the good citizens of Salem who, like crimes of the century before and after are only guilty of their neighbours bearing false witness against them. But, forgive me, isn’t that a sin? JWR