In what I feel sure is a self-reinforcing loop, I couldn’t help but think of Dar Williams’ song “Holly Tree” as I watched Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in the Hope Theatre at the University of Oregon.
The singer-songwriter’s lyrics speak of arable land in New England before the Revolution, and just exactly how men of power and rank got their hands on it when women and children, among others, were vulnerable. Miller’s 1953 play, which many people will remember reading in American Lit in high school, reveals this power grab as well.
The Crucible concerns both colonial history and what Miller was experiencing as he wrote it – the Joseph McCarthy era. The play still holds a fair amount of power because of its injustices and complexities; it doesn’t need any justification about “the terrorist era” to make it relevant now and anytime, for at the heart of it lies both a question of personal morality and a question of institutional rot. Those will never be irrelevant.
Just in case you don’t remember the particulars, or in case you didn’t have it assigned in high school: A young woman, Abigail Williams (Kylie DeHaven) covers up her and her friends’ nighttime activities in the forest with accusations of witchcraft. Abby and the other young women of the town were dancing, drinking love potions and listening to Abby’s uncle’s servant Tituba (Naomi Wright) sing songs from Barbados – and they’re discovered by that uncle, Salem’s Reverend Parris (Andrew Poletto).
This is a problem for the young women. They’ll be publicly whipped for their sins, and they’ll be whispered about all over town and farther. Most of them are servants who need employment or young women of good families who want husbands. The girls find themselves in a bind; this Puritan society has no give to it, no way for them to enjoy themselves without being considered sinful. Meanwhile, they can see that Reverend Parris’ parishoner Thomas Putnam (Karl Metz) wants land and wants to blame certain people in the town for his wife’s miscarriages. They’re clever girls, and they’re stuck in a terrible society for young women – and to get out of their trouble, they play the men against each other and end up killing many of their neighbors. Miller never meant The Crucibleas a play striking a blow for women’s rights – the main antagonist is a young women who wants to get her married lover back and manipulates an entire town, killing people, in order to try for that – but nonetheless, it’s easy for a modern audience to see how girls with no apparent power found horribly damaging ways to take any power they could.
And in the play, the Salem and Boston men enable them time after time by being more willing to believe the girls’ ravings of spirits and their self-inflicted bruises and wounds than being able to consider the political undercurrents of accusations.
Director Theresa May, a professor in the UO’s Department of Theatre, has a cast comprised of mostly inexperienced actors, but they perform admirably. As John Proctor, one of the main focuses of the play – Proctor would not accuse other witches, just as Miller and some others would not give names of fellow former Communists to the McCarthy hearings – Riley Shanahan bears a heavy acting burden that he carries well. Proctor had (consensual) sex with Abigail Williams when she was his servant, and ever since, he’s been trying to reconcile with his wife Elizabeth (Antonia Gomez) and work his farm outside of town. He doesn’t like Reverend Parris’ preaching, so he skips church sometimes, and he’d like to hire a different pastor. And he’s still attracted to Abby. All of that comes even before Elizabeth is accused of witchcraft and before he himself ends up with a death sentence for witchcraft – commutable if he’ll only name others as witches.
Part of the strength of the second act comes from the crossing trajectories of two other men: Reverend John Hale (Michael Sugar), who starts out with the intense desire to ferret out witchcraft and who realizes where his well-intentioned but terrible errors have led; and Deputy Governor Danforth (Michelle Yeadon), who takes his authority all too seriously and practically foams at the mouth to enforce what he considers the laws of church and state. (And thank you, Thomas Jefferson, for dividing state from church after the American Revolution!) Sugar, strong in this role, and Yeadon, superb in her depiction of a self-righteous blowhard, show the tensions within and between those who question and those who can’t afford to question, lest the entire social framework come crashing down.
A Fisher King sense pervades the final scenes – the town is wracked by wandering cows; orphans roam from house to house, looking for food, work and affection; crops rot in the fields. That’s all because authority has sickened and been corrupted, not by some evil spirits but by lust for property, power, and righteousness. The land won’t right itself until authority does – and judging from Danforth’s actions, that’s going to take some time.
This play runs about two hours and 45 minutes with an intermission. The Hope Theatre, thanks to its size and lighting grid, is always hot (wear layers that you can take off, and you’ll be happier). But this production of The Crucible keeps the audience in a firm, worried grip as it barrels toward the anguished cry of conclusion.
The Crucible only runs through St. Patrick’s Day, March 17. Tickets are $12 for seniors and students, $14 for the general public, and free to UO students with ID who arrive at the box office between 7 and 7:30 p.m. on the day of the performance (or 1 and and 1:30 p.m. on March 11, the one matinee performance). Tix here or at the door. Getting to the University Theatre is quite easy– there’s free parking just across 11th Ave.; the EmX stops right at Dad’s Gates; or you can park a bike at numerous spots near the building.
If you haven’t read it since high school, or if your high school was too concerned about your possible rebellious tendencies to let you read it, now’s the time to see this deservedly classic play.
I came from Portland for the Sunday Matinee. I thought the entire play and the cast did a wonderful job. The customs were very good and the staging great .It was a great day and fun to be back on the campus.
Glad you liked it, Jo! I thought the costumes were quite tremendous, especially the costume for John Proctor (Riley Shanahan). Gorgeously done, Gina Love – and I’m so pleased the UO now has a big, safe, ventilated costume room in the renovated theatre complex.