U-M's powerful staging of still-relevant 'Crucible' would make even Arthur Miller proud
photo by Peter Smith Photography
The notion that I was seeing one of the greatest American plays by one of America’s greatest playwrights, in a theater named for him, at the university from which he graduated, did not escape me during Thursday night’s opening performance of Arthur Miller’s enduring “The Crucible.”
Had he been in the audience, I think Miller would have been pleased with the edge-of-your-seat staging courtesy of the University of Michigan Department of Theatre & Drama.
Most of us know “The Crucible” as a dramatization of the Salem witch trials of the late 1600s, set in motion by a group of teenage girls who leveled accusations of witchcraft against their innocent neighbors. It was written in response to the hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities held in the 1950s -Â a more modern-day witch hunt in which Miller was caught up - and still resonates in today’s world of religious fervor, self-righteous morality and political expediency.
As the accused wrestle with being condemned to the gallows for telling the truth, or lying to save their lives, the hypocrisy of religious and political systems no matter the era is laid bare. Jealousy lust and revenge also mix in this emotional stew, and every word in Miller’s masterpiece remains compelling.
Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr., who as farmer John Proctor must make a decision that could spare his life, knew when to speak softly and when to let the rage come out. Not only were his emotions etched clearly in his face, they were a palpable presence in the room. His was the voice of reason, yet no one was willing to listen so blinded were they by hysteria.
He was not the only one urging sanity. Casey Hanley as the Rev. John Hale was convincing as a man slowly waking up to the horrific situation around him, yet ultimately powerless to stop it. Reed Campbell offered a compelling portrayal of Deputy-Governor Danforth, a man more concerned about maintaining the authority of God and the court than listening to the truth. Nick Strauss’ Rev. Parris painted a clear picture of a coward more concerned about his job and reputation than the guilt or innocence of the accused.
Erin Cousins and Brian Rosenthal as the well-to-do couple Ann and Thomas Putnam were scary in their unwavering certainty that evil was afoot in Salem. Devin Lytle, as Proctor’s wife Elizabeth, delivered an emotionally-nuanced performance that proved her heart wasn’t as cold as one might have thought. Arielle Goldman’s Abigail Williams, leader of the girls making the accusations of witchcraft, was believable at every turn, as was Shannon Eagen’s Mary Warren, who tried, but failed to reveal the truth. She was driven over the edge by Danforth’s browbeating questioning, and it showed.
Thought provoking at every turn, “The Crucible” continues to be a play for our times. I’m sure it was lost on no one that as recently as last fall a candidate for U.S. Senate had to clarify for voters that she too was not a witch. If you’d like to see it, call now. Several of the upcoming performances are already sold out.
"The Crucible" continues at the Arthur Miller Theatre in the Walgreen Drama Center, 1226 Murfin, Thursdays-Sundays through April 10. Tickets: 734-764-2538 or online.