Director Shirley Tannenbaum has gotten impressive results from her Point Park University Conservatory student cast, vitalizing Arthur Miller’s still -gripping play The Crucible. This 1953 classic has always been seen as an indictment of McCarthyism, often called “witch hunting” to imply a kinship with what Miller portrays, dark days in early American history. Certainly the corrosive things which happened among us in the 1950s tarnished our times but this production thoroughly reminds us that Miller’s script is no simple polemic. Tannenbaum and her excellent performers dramatically make clear the culture of that period and place, focusing on characters caught up in the craziness which dominates and poisons a tightly knit community. Miller’s depiction of unbridled religious fanaticism and crowd hysteria surges on the stage. Everyone especially makes the intense second act compellingly relentless.
Miller based his script on actual events in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, but rather than suggesting a documentary, he dwells on human behavior, while revealing the primitive thinking which gave rise to such an aberration. Some of the characters have the same names as the real people but Miller did not attempt to represent them factually.
John Proctor is at the center of this tale. The good man strayed from his goodness by having an affair with 17 year old Abigail Williams. After breaking it off with Abigail, Proctor confessed his error to his wife Elizabeth. Abigail is one of five girls who, breaking out into paroxysms, claim to be under the spell of the devil and of witches among them. Their accusations are taken seriously by people with power, Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth among them. While attempting to find truth they readily give credence to the idea that there are witches and that the devil has power to dominate souls. Meanwhile Abigail, having been rejected by John, does her utmost to destroy his and Elizabeth’s lives.
Tannenbaum’s actors become a vivid ensemble, while at the same time well-defined as distinctive individuals. Joe Rittenhouse especially stands out among them as Danforth, making him always authoritative, and totally sincere in his unyielding convictions. Rittenhouse never overdoes it. And Alex Walton’s version of John Proctor remains sturdily convincing while Harrison Buzzatto’s playing of much put-upon townsman Giles Corey likewise leaves a memorable impression.
Tannenbaum has admirably paced many crucial moments, creating intense, suspenseful tension. Joan Markert’s costumes add to solid sense of reality, as does Gianni Downs’ stripped-down set, implying the raw, crude nature of how such people lived. Downs has also added a telling comment, making the walls and colors suggest the fires of hell, as if the place could actually be where the devil rules. Tannenbaum reinforces that with Steve Shapiro’s initial sound design of echoing peals of hollow laughter.
This expert production clearly reminds us that, although the Devil may not exist, evil done in the name of God still thrives all around the world.
Performances of The Crucible continue through Sunday December 16th at Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Avenue, Oakland. 412/392-8000 or pittsburghplayhouse.com