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Theater Review:

"THE CRUCIBLE" at TimeLine Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

Arthur Miller’s classic drama of unspeakably twisted church-/state-sanctioned persecution, "The Crucible" is required reading in nearly every English class across the country. It’s also a long-time staple of the American stage. So most individuals are familiar with the play’s well-documented parallels between the Salem witch trials of 1692 and the Sen. Joseph McCarthy-led House Un-American Activities Committee of the 1950s.

But audiences who have the privilege of experiencing TimeLine Theatre Company’s eerily eloquent production of "The Crucible" will no doubt feel like they are seeing a fresh new play wholly relevant for our increasingly paranoid times.

Director Nick Bowling’s weighty staging emphasizes a period pureness right down to the production’s distressed wool fabrics and misshapen wooden planks. The tone, however, rings with an urgent modernity featuring actors who speak with a stirring immediacy. Yet they are neither anachronistic nor declamatory – but part of a primal human power struggle that manifests itself in destructive manipulations of perceived truths.

The play begins the moment audiences file into TimeLine’s vintage "New England"-style theater in the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ’s Baird Hall. A dangerously raked runway platform points downward to a large iron crucible. In the middle of this tumultuous environment sleeps a child in a wooden coffin-like cradle. Every few minutes, she fidgets or tugs on her blanket – sporadic bursts of agitation within an otherwise serene moment.

In the same way Bowling’s vision is both historically accurate and abstractly contemporary, the immersive scenic/lighting design by Heather Graff and Richard Peterson is simultaneously literal and figurative. The immovable round crucible/cauldron on stage reaches its boiling point at key points in the play – from the young girls’ demonic dances around its flaming abyss to the uncontained lust of John Proctor and Abigail Williams.

A glowering charcoal mist hangs over the players, clad in costume designer Nicole Rene Burchfield’s harsh shades of black, white and – of course – gray. One can actually feel the evil creeping into their characters’ seemingly upright lives. Fiery and funereal, TimeLine’s "Crucible" has the power to ignite viewers’ belief in enlightened justice while provoking a deep sense of mourning for any society that lives in fear and ignorance.

Miller wrote "The Crucible" in 1952 at the height of McCarthy-induced hysteria. Set in the Puritan era when the colony of Massachusetts was governed by a theocracy, it chronicles the length to which an embittered young girl (Abigail Williams) in a repressed culture goes to seek vengeance on the married man (John Proctor) with whom she has had a brief affair. Seduced by the magic imported to Salem by her uncle’s Barbados-born slave, Tituba, Abigail becomes the ringleader of a coven consisting mainly of giggly, sexually aware teenage girls.

When reports of witchcraft begin to circulate – sparked by the mysterious illness of Abigail’s little niece Betty and the death of various children in the village -- the girls reverse the claim by convincing the authorities that God is speaking through them. Since witchcraft remained a very real threat to the Puritan lifestyle, officials believed this calculating band and, in an unexpected twist, rounded up the most respected citizens of Salem, put them on trial (often using torture to prove their guilt or make them confess) and hanged many of them.

The rebellious John Proctor becomes the champion of tolerance, especially after his forgiving wife, Elizabeth, is among the accused. This play is a sublimely structured study of a society’s relentless drive to save its own precious hide. Once the fraud is revealed, the immovable authorities will not admit their mistake to the public. After all, such an admission would prove that their unfounded belief system to which they and their ancestors clung was wrong. The shackles that had kept most people in ignorance over the centuries would have to be removed.

So the prospect of a world order collapsing was more catastrophic to these judges than the execution of a few innocent people.

We need to keep seeing plays like "The Crucible" to remind us of the coy manipulations and superstitions – most of them in the guise of religion -- that continue to wreak havoc on humankind. As the tested Rev. John Hale proclaims, "It is mistaken law that leads to sacrifice."

One of TimeLine’s main goals is to present historic plays that comment on our current sociopolitical climate. Hysteria of any kind – even in the form of a fervent, unquestioning nationalism – must always be kept in check.

Bowling has assembled an electrifying cast fully committed to the many shadings of this play. David Parkes gives John Proctor a forceful earthiness and grounded adherence to his beliefs that contrasts evocatively with Jenny Friedmann’s boastfully fraudulent Abigail. In a particularly terrifying scene, Parkes grabs a trance-like Friedmann by the wrist just in time to save her from falling backwards into the crucible’s flames.

P.J. Powers, cast against type as the once-fervent/later-questioning Rev. Hale, turns in a nuanced performance that convincingly demonstrates one man’s capacity to overturn his misguided faith. Other stimulating performances include Gary Simmers as the desperately self-righteous and accusatory Rev. Parris; Linsey Page Morton as the morally torn Mary Warren, who fearfully turns against Abigail; Ira Carol McGill as the earnest Tituba; Ron Butts as the unshakeable Deputy Governor Danforth; and Mary Becker as the saintly Rebecca Nurse.

Bowling’s production artfully emphasizes the "fire and brimstone" scare tactics employed by the play’s religious fanatics. It will leave audiences questioning the degree to which they should stoke the fire or extinguish the flames.•

"The Crucible" has been extended through December 9 at TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (Baird Hall at the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ). Tickets: $10-$18. Call 312-409-8463 or log onto www.TimeLineTheatre.com.

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