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Center Stage

‘The Crucible’ of witchery, tragedy and storm

4/16/2014

Last Saturday night, midway into the second act, “The Crucible” brought the thunder. Set at the Salem courthouse, 1692, the witchcraft trials went from bad to worse. Innocent townsfolk found themselves condemned to hang on the “spectral evidence” of hysterical teenage girls. These “Heathers” have their Alpha, the charismatic Abigail, infatuated with the married John Proctor. Now Proctor has come to confess his fling with the girl, and so exposes her pretending.

Then as Abigail strode in, glaring — we heard thunder.

The effect was coincidence, of course, an electrical discharge overhead. Nonetheless, it was matched by the electricity of the RTI production. The company has now brought back-to-back winners at its new home in the Social Club, trumping last month’s “Our Town” with this month’s “The Crucible.” The witch hysteria terrifies, as scene after scene mounts from intimate disturbances to crowds howling for blood. Proctor’s court appearance climaxes with him being seized by marshals, the girls screeching, and one of the judges’ tribunal bellowing: “I renounce these proceedings!”

As did the playwright, Arthur Miller, back in 1953. “The Crucible” was his enraged response to McCarthy and his search for “Un-American Activities,” hearings also known as witch-hunts. Miller himself was subpoenaed, and the play that resulted proved too edgy for the box office. Yet these days, not even his “Death of a Salesman” gets produced so often. This enduring power, according to RTI director Matthew McIver, reflects a “paranoid strain” in U.S. experience. McIver’s notes, in the playbill, recall the paranoia that followed the 9/11 attacks.

Repertory Theater of Iowa brings “The Crucible” to the Des Moines Social Club’s Kum & Go Theater, playing through April 20.

Repertory Theater of Iowa brings “The Crucible” to the Des Moines Social Club’s Kum & Go Theater, playing through April 20.

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So the RTI version allowed contemporary elements to creep in. Proctor spends most of the play in Puritan dress, but arrives at court wearing a tie. The confession to witchcraft — the lie one signs to escape the noose — comes on a clipboard, and the pen is ballpoint. These details function in startling contrast to Jay Jagim’s set, all stark Americana, weathered brown and gray. 

Still, it’s no prop that generates this production’s emotional power. It’s the human factor, like David Oddy as Proctor, his lower lip trembling as he works through shame to better. His worst obstacle is Shawn Wilson, as the unforgiving Deputy-Governor, breaking down witnesses with a disingenuous smile. Similarly, when Sarah Brazier, as Abigail, faces off with Glori dei Fillipone as Mary Warren (baring her teeth like a cornered mouse), the moral struggle finds teenage embodiment. Yet the standout performance may have been in one of the most contemptible roles, the vain and panicky Reverend Parris, played by John Robinson. The roly-poly quality that has served Robison so well comedically, here lent humanity to his shallowness, his lashing out. Talk about bringing the thunder. 

Overheard in the Lobby: Stagewest has announced next year’s lineup, and it will run the gamut from the eye-opening “Cock” (actual title) to the crowd-pleasing “Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike.” CV              

John Domini is Cityview’s “Play Mate” theater critic who pens our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.

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