Review: ‘The Crucible’ at Olney Theatre Center

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Fanaticism grows in a society fractured along fault lines of political and religious authority, property, status, gender, generational change, and belief, creating a fertile climate for persecution. The first thing the audience sees on entering Olney Theatre Center’s main stage for Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is a network of variously angled, sheared off, red boards of different lengths across the length and breadth of the proscenium, Scenic Designer Andrew Cohen’s vivid visual metaphor for the brokenness of Salem, Massachusetts, in the late 17th century.

Shpend Xani, Dylan Fleming, Dani Stoller, Chris Genebach, Jonathan Atkinson, and Miranda Rizzolo in The Crucible. Photo by Stan Barouh.

The Crucible famously uses the literal world of the 1692 Salem witch panic as a metaphor for the Red Scare of the late 1940s – mid 1950s. A key figure in driving the play’s metaphor is Deputy Governor Danforth (Paul Morella), who conducts the trial that is central to the second act. Dramaturg Timothy Huth asserts that “it is widely assumed that [Danforth] is a stand-in for Joseph McCarthy,” and Morella plays to that understanding of the role. While always implacable, Danforth can, in some interpretations, seem dedicated to his time’s ideas of fairness and justice. Morella emphasizes Danforth’s inquisitorial side. As with all the principal players, Morella’s acting is crisp, clear, and consistently on point.

The moving party behind the witch panic in Miller’s story is Abigail Williams (Dani Stoller), a servant girl who had a brief affair with John Proctor (Chris Genebach). In his program note, Jason King Jones, Olney’s senior associate artistic director, says that Abby and the other young women “discover their power and mount a revolution.”

Stoller’s take on the role is consistent with King’s view. Her Abby is a young adult – not a child-woman – focused on exerting control from the beginning: with respect to her uncle, the Rev. Parris (Michael Russato), in the opening scene; with respect to her erotic power over John; with respect to Danforth and the trial in the second act, as she takes her revenge on the Proctors. Stoller’s interpretation is strong and piercing, but it deemphasizes some aspects of her character, particularly the genuine hurt she feels from Proctor’s rejection and her frustration at Puritan society’s repression of her sexuality.

Director Eleanor Holdridge cut the “forest scene” between Abigail and John at the outset of the second act. While understandable given the length of the play, this choice misses an opportunity to fill in the nuances of both characters, especially her vulnerability and captivity to her own fantasies and his hatred and capacity for violence.

In some ways, John seems a modern man in a 17th-century setting. He is rational and skeptical of authority; (it is difficult to imagine a 17th-century man saying “God is dead,” for example). Guilt-ridden over his “lechery” with Abigail – his sexual feelings toward her continue to a degree, as she can sense – he is both a profoundly good and deeply conflicted character, whose protests against the injustice of the witchcraft trials bring him into deadly trouble.

John’s resentment of his wife’s coldness, his rebellion against the demands of church and court, and his deep-seated pride gives an actor the opportunity to play all aspects of a very complex character, and Genebach takes full advantage of the opportunity. He makes some nice, unconventional, choices, such as a relatively quiet rather than shouted “God’s icy wind will blow” at the end of Act II.

Scott Parkinson as and the girls of Salem in The Crucible. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Elizabeth Proctor (Rachel Zampelli), is quite different from the wives in other Miller plays, such as Linda Loman, Beatrice Carbone, or Kate Keller. Where they are traditionally warm and nurturing, albeit long-suffering, spouses, Elizabeth is emotionally and physically distant from her husband, particularly (though perhaps not solely) as the result of his affair with Abigail.

She looks at him critically, and he feels the sting of her gaze. Zampelli conveys that distance well and avoids the temptation to overplay. In the last scene, when her love and need for John overwhelm her, their desperate embrace and passionate kiss make an effectively dramatic contrast with the tone of their previous interaction.

In the supporting cast, Thomas and Ann Putnam (Bolton Marsh and Jessica Lefkow), full of grievances over property and stillbirths, are frightening as ordinary villagers who enable the purge of their fellow townspeople. Russato’s take on the weak and, as Danforth says, “brainless” Rev. Parris is older, mentally and physically frailer, and, in the trial scene, more insidious than in some interpretations of the character.

Craig MacDonald captures both the comedy and pathos of John’s old friend, Giles Corey. In brief first scene roles, Yakima Rich brings a light comic touch to Susanna Walcott, one of Abigail’s confederates, and Lillian Oben is spectacular as Tituba, the Barbados slave who is bullied into admitting witchcraft and naming others. It would have been lovely to see more of her in the women’s prison scene, which was also cut.

Rev. John Hale (Scott Harrison) has a lengthy character arc, from arrogant intellectual to defense advocate for the accused to broken pleader for the lives of the condemned. Harrison’s characterization was heartfelt but sometimes overwrought. In fact, there were a number of moments when various actors might profitably have chosen ways of showing intensity other than increased volume.

Ms. Holdridge deserves our thanks for avoiding the pitfalls of the misguided 2016 mounting of The Crucible in New York, which severed the play altogether from its 1692 history. There is one noticeable misstep in the Olney production, however, when the design for the trial scene features floor-to-ceiling modernist translucent panels and drop-down fluorescent lights. The audience can be trusted to realize that there are parallels between the events of 1692 and the events of the 1950s or today. Hitting the audience with a jarring physical analogy to that connection is unnecessary.

George Washington University professor Dr. Kerric Harvey gave an informative pre-show talk before the opening night performance, drawing interesting parallels between the 1692 witch craze and the current role of social media as “magnifying glasses” of societal stresses. Olney, like some other strong professional groups in the area, does a fine job of providing dramaturgical information for playgoers.

Running Time: Three hours and 5 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.

The Crucible plays through May 20, 2018, at the Olney Theatre Center main stage – 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD.  For tickets, call the box office at 301-024-3400, or purchase them online.