On its surface, Arthur Miller’s classic The Crucible is about the historic Salem Witch Trials. In 1692 teen girls in Salem, Massachusetts became enraptured with power when they took to accusing scores of innocent people of practicing witchcraft and being in league with the devil. Countless souls were sent to jail, many losing their lives.
Even when the lies were discovered, even when the truth was known by those in power, it didn’t matter. For judges, preachers, and civic leaders to admit they had been duped would be too much of an embarrassment.
However, there is much more brewing under the surface with this biting Miller drama. Written in 1953, Miller’s Tony-winning play reflects the McCarthyism that went on during the 1940s and 50s. During that time period, Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy led a campaign to persecute his political enemies by baselessly claiming they were communists.
McCarthy ruined the lives of countless professionals, many in the entertainment industry, by making up stories about them – the same way teen girls in Salem ruined the lives of their perceived enemies by making up false, hysterical accusations against them.
The play is a testament to the horrors of the corruption of power, and how easily the public can be misled by the unscrupulous who accuse and malign the innocent in their pursuit of their own selfish wants or just amusement. It reflects a very real world where accusers can get away with lunacy. “You’re guilty because I say you are and what I say is proof enough.” That level of fascist thinking is just as evident today as it was during the McCarthy era.
Invictus Theatre Company takes all this into account with its emotional, intense production of The Crucible playing in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood through June 11. And expectations should be high. Invictus’s 2022 production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? won multiple Jeff Awards, including the high honor of Best Production of a Play.
Directed by Invictus Theatre Company’s artistic director Charles Askenaizer, The Crucible packs a lot of power into the theater company’s storefront space. And I love many of Askenaizer’s directorial choices that make use of the space in creative and effective ways.
Indeed, the staging of the play – how the actors enter and exit, how the scenes are blocked, and all the physical movements that take place on stage – is genius. With minimal exceptions, the cast remains in the playing area throughout the performance – from the moment the audience enters to take their seats.
The cast sits in 1692 era church pews at the sides of the stage, always in character. They leave their seats only to enter their scenes at the appropriate times. It creates a tense ambiance throughout.
The play begins with Barbados slave Tituba dancing in the woods with a handful of Puritan teen girls. It is tribal and feverishly fun, a blend between young girls letting off steam and exploring something new. When the girls are discovered by Reverend Paris, a series of desperate lies erupt to cover up the truth.
It is not only the girls who lie, but Reverend Paris and his friends in the community as well. They fear the ramifications to the Reverend’s image if it was found out that his daughter and niece had brought this deviant behavior into his very home – the religious leader of the community who is struggling as it is to gain the respect of his followers.
At the heart of the story is the relationship between farmer John Proctor and Reverend Paris’ niece Abigail Williams. Abigail had been a servant in Proctor’s household but had been sent away by his wife Elizabeth. Abigail resents the wife for sending her away and speaking ill of her in the community, but she still holds a candle for John.
While the accusations of witchcraft against the members of the community by Abigail and her cohorts began in desperation, it develops into a well-orchestrated attack on anyone who has ever made any of the girls feel slighted. And as the lies grow, so does the power of the accusers, and power is an addictive thing.
Reverend Paris becomes consumed with a lust for power. So does influential landowner Thomas Putnam, and Deputy Governor Danforth and Judge Hawthorne who are supposed to represent the law in the equation – although clearly they are far from unbiased representatives of the state.
There is no one character that dominates the play. It is an interplay of characters sliding into and out of the spotlight – each captivating the audience for a time until the next worthy thespian takes center stage.
There are no unnecessary characters in the play. Perhaps it is a testament to their acting and Askenaizer’s direction, but the ensemble proves that every character is vital to the story.
The play is told in three acts. Act I introduces the audience to the characters and establishes the basis of the story. Askenaizer has the cast at maximum intensity and volume throughout the first section of the play.
Act II is much quieter and, as such, even stronger than Act I, with a more intimate exploration of some of the emotions and personal relationships at play.
Askenaizer saves the best for last though. Act III shows off the cast at their best, driving the story to a heartbreaking, thought provoking end that will reverberate in you long after you’ve left the theatre.
TAKING THE STAGE
Leading the cast are Mark Pracht as John Proctor, Devon Carson as his wife Elizabeth Proctor, Michaela Voit as Abigail Williams, and James Turano as Deputy Governor Danforth who comes to Salem to preside over the witch trials.
Pracht quickly demonstrates that he is capable of going to a very high max ceiling in intensity and volume. This certainly expresses John Proctor’s frustrations and resentments in a very powerful way. Pracht definitely has his moments and visually achieves an almost Christ-like stature when he returns to the stage at the close of Act III.
In the music industry, the most gifted guitarists are the ones who show off different nuances in their playing. Over the course of a concert or an album they might play some sections with screaming power and others in soft display of the intricacies of how they can make their fingers fly. But those are just the extremes. The really talented ones use every level in between to create a full picture of sound. In that scenario, the guitarist understands that just because their amplifier can go to 10 on the volume dial doesn’t mean it has to be at that setting the whole concert.
For me as an audience member, I love to see nuances in a character. As the leader of the witchcraft accusers, Michaela Voit is brilliant. You can see Abigail start to formulate an idea, then develop it over an extended period, and finally implement it. If you kept your eyes on Voit the entire show, you would be enthralled the whole time.
At the performance being reviewed, Voit appeared in the role despite being recognizably ill. She even worked carrying a handkerchief into her character for this particular performance. As someone who once performed with a 103° temperature, and who would literally faint after each exit and have to be revived for my next entrance, I cannot applaud Voit’s dedication loud enough. Michaela Voit has my ultimate respect.
Devon Carson is very impressive as John Proctor’s wronged, yet still devoted wife Elizabeth. She knows how to say a lot without needing a lot of words to do so. Every word is measured, and many messages are sent without the use of words. She is the glue that holds the show together.
There are no bad actors in Invictus Theatre Company’s The Crucible, so to stand out in such a crowd is a feat of accomplishment. James Turano doesn’t enter the play until Act III, but when he does, he takes over.
Turano turns in an absolutely amazing performance. He is a masterful dramatic actor. He also finds the humor in the absurdity of the lengths the deputy governor will go to in order to justify dismissing the truth because to admit it would be too crushing to his ego. He would definitely be the type to make up election fraud claims rather than admit he lost.
Yet although Turano shows the grotesque absurdity in the situation, he never ever makes his character comedic. Turano is adept at all the emotions and tricks necessary to make his Danforth a searing, villainous man yet still a real man. He is the Senator McCarthy of the play. Like almost all the characters in the play, he is driven by power.
There are also a number of supporting characters that stand out in this particular production of The Crucible. In particular, all of the young people playing the accusing teen girls are exceptional.
Ellie Duffey as Abigail’s friend and co-conspirator Mary Warren provides an impressive performance. She is the most wishy washy of the girls, with a desire to tell the truth but lacking the backbone to stand by it.
Lea Grace Biwer plays the youngest of the girls, Reverend Parris’s daughter Betty. In the opening scene of the girls dancing with the slave woman Tituba, Biwer establishes her character right away – making her a bit clumsy and unsure compared to the others but then quickly gaining confidence and embracing the thrill. Throughout the play, Biwer proves that despite her young age she deserves to be in this fine assembly of talent.
LaTorious R. Givens as Tituba, Frank Nall as spunky old cuss Giles Corey, and Barbara Roeder Harris as voice of reason Rebecca Nurse are all magnificent.
Scenic designer Kevin Rolfs, fight/intimacy designer Amber Wuttke, and lighting designer Chad Lussier all have done standout work.
Askenaizer and his artistic staff have achieved a really stupendous artistic achievement with The Crucible. Part of the joy of being a theatre critic is finding the diamonds in the rough. Invictus Theatre Company is an out of the way theatrical gem. It sparkles and shines, and truth be told, is worth a fortune.
The Crucible plays through June 11. Performances are Mondays and Thursdays through Saturdays at 7 PM. Sunday performances are at 3 PM.
The production plays at Reginald Vaughn Theatre at 1106 W. Thorndale in Chicago. For tickets visit www.InvictusTheatreCo.com.
Photo credit: Through Line Studios
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
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