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"These are Strange Times" - review of The Crucible #review1999

Originally published in the Chico Enterprise-Record.

Event: The Crucible

Venue: Harlan Adams Theater, California State University, Chico

When: 10/20/1999

"These Are Strange Times"

In an allegory of society relevant in 1692, 1952, as well as the present, Arthur Miller raised awareness in the literary world of the dangers of group hysteria spinning out of control. It's still very surprising to see that Miller's play "The Crucible" is produced as often as it is with the internal message all but ignored. As a people learns their future through their past, we should all take a good look at this play.

Chico State's Fall production plays for only a short engagement but will leave all sorts of dark thoughts behind. This quality production rivals those at more venerable forums such as Ashland's Festivals and performances in San Francisco and London. Balancing an excellent cast with a professionally rendered set, this show reproduces the feeling of dread experienced well by those who read it first.

The dysfunctional society of Puritanical Salem, Massachusetts, devolves from a community with strict guidelines delineated by the Bible and underscored by formidable reverends. When a group of girls are caught in the act of dancing in the woods at night, they are denounced before being revered as they begin to pin the blame for their transgressions on the rest of the community by crying witch. The mere mention of the concept of "witchery" sets the town’s residents into a frenzy and soon everyone is being labeled and arrested, without any evidence stronger than hearsay.

In the midst of this disintegration of society, guest Reverend Hale, makes the foreboding understatement that, "These are strange times."

CSU Chico's Department of Theatre Arts and the School of the Arts are both to be complemented by this outstanding production. Noteworthy performances include Dylan Latimer's "John Proctor," Jackie Lillard's "Mary Warren," Rebecca Long's "Abigail Williams," and Asia S. Anderson's "Tituba."

The intense nature of this play requires strong direction and Gail Holbrook pulls it off with few foibles. At times, the dialogue took on too stilted a quality, attempting to find an accent or phrasing appropriate to that time period. This cost the play a bit of its impact, distancing the audience from the reality of the scenario. Also, the blocking for Abigail and John Proctor, positioned them with their backs facing the audience during some of the delivery of their most intense lines, making them hard to follow.

On the whole, Latimer's Proctor sent the strongest messages, speaking his and the audiences' minds throughout the debauchery of the citizenry of Salem. Not giving into the mass' fear, he holds his dignity and honor throughout the three hour production, despite the fact the audience learns of his "human" fall into "lechery" with Abigail.

Lillard shows great potential with her sensitive and realistic portrayal of Warren, the girl who, once bolstered by Proctor, attempts to speak the truth, but inevitably falls to manipulative Abigail and her peer pressure. Anderson's interpretation of Tituba is duplicitous and sensual, interpreted as evil yet a reminder that other opinions existed at that historical time.

The set, built on a turning platform, was well constructed with rough-hewn planks for walls, each offset a little leaving visible strips, as to add to the feeling that there is "nowhere to hide." The see-through walls had sharply cut ends, much like barbed-wire topped barriers, further discouraging escape. The background of lifeless, twisted trees and occasional townfolk, whether in transit for their performance or just nosily listening in to the ongoing events, set a tone adding to the paranoia.

The laughs garnered during the play come naturally but feel a little uncomfortable considering the source. This play pertains to society on many levels, from late night finger-pointing on the Jerry Springer Show to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. When written, it was considered an outcry to Senator Joe McCarthy's trials against believed Communists. The story itself has historical roots in the Salem Witch Trials performed in the late 1600's.

Present thought assumes that our society is, to a degree, falling apart as a result of changing morals and too little discipline. "The Crucible" shows that even at times of strict religious rule, when all things considered fun are condemned, the society falls apart just as well. This play serves as a wake-up call to us that an unbalanced society, at either extreme, is very dangerous and destructive. Hopefully, we are better equipped to deal with our ails than the frightened folks of pre-colonial Salem.

© 2020 by Stephanie Bird.

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