The intrinsic instability of life is a theme common to most of Miller’s work – and The Crucible is no exception, as almost an entire town is put on trial for witchcraft. The accusers are young girls, unaware of the hell they have unleashed, only just realising the influence their theatrics have on the authorities (particularly the men), and on the prevalent atmosphere of blame-dishing and paranoia. Personal vendettas are exercised and all of Salem, even the once lofty and war-mongering Parris, are brought to their knees. Miller wrote this play out of a sort of desperation, hoping to stir the fearful liberals of his day as they chose silence over loud denunciations for fear of being accused of being ardent Communists. McCarthyism was on the rise and ‘witch-hunts’ punctuated the weeks. Miller too was in the throes of a failing marriage, hoping to find redemption or perhaps a sliver of hope, in John Proctor, the protagonist – and thus was inspired the Crucible.
Directed by Cesca Echlin, who from the sound of it deeply enjoyed the performance, Rose on a Rail’s production of The Crucible was a delight. Opening with Betty Parris lying on a table as her father anguishes over her, the play proceeds in an orderly fashion as the characters file in, each making an impact within the very first scene. Notably, Abigail (Abby McCann) is self-serving and dangerous as a cornered animal, and her uncle (Gavin Fleming) evolves well from an anguished father to a regular Iago. Elizabeth Proctor (Maddy Page) is memorable as stoic and contained, immediately eliciting sympathy for her cause, and a certain respect too, while her husband, John (Alex Marks) despite having been given the task of shaking sense into many a female character, often leaves them in a pool of tears and anguish. I jest, for his redemption, his refusal to condemn anyone else, his humanity in his acceptance of infidelity, is all befitting of a leading man, even if his post-torture shirt was not nearly tattered enough.
The authorities, appearing first as Reverend Hale (Tom Fisher), followed later by Danforth (Dominic Weatherby) and Hathorne (Louis Cunningham), are the effective ‘gown’, while Giles (Alex-Fleming Brown) and Proctor, the ‘town’ – ‘just farmers’. The class divide is evident, as is the Dracula-like realness served by Cunningham, whom I thoroughly enjoyed as Mrs Putnam too. In fact, the recycling of characters, with Tituba (Tumi Olufawo) doubling as an officer of the court, and Betty (Philomena Wills) as Herrick, too, is a clever tactic as the audience need not be introduced to new cast, and the actors can exercise un-gendered theatrical license. Tituba, in particular, was evocative in her scene in the jail cell, describing the devil as he is seen in Barbados, in perhaps a thinly veiled attempt by Miller to give us exposure, to help his contemporaries experience difference.
Good actors do not entirely maketh a play, and credit must be given to the direction, lighting and sounds. The former was crucial, as the presence of multiple characters on stage, in the corners, reacting, collectively shunning or anguishing, really set the tone. This sense of judgement was furthered in scenes in which Abigail and Elizabeth face the very same corner of the room, a warm light bathing their faces as they await judgment on their lives. The latter was succinct, to the point, but effective, as smoke rose up when the time for a possession or accusation was nigh, and the lights would brighten to illuminate the stage. The poignancy of the four witches sitting back to back, in what were empty chairs at the start of the scene, is notable and well played.
This play is already an exhausting and emotionally wringing whodunit, a constant wheel of blame, indignation, helplessness and fear. But this production upped that, for I was squirming in my badly chosen seat, as Proctor broke down over having to sign his name, or as Hale denounced the proceedings, or Mary Warren (Olivia Marshall) gave in to her friend’s pretence, finding no worldly way out of the mess. And as a badge of approval, nay, a vote of support, I’ll buy you a ticket.