Well, that escalated quickly.
In his play The Crucible, Arthur Miller borrows the Salem witch trials as a platform to examine how little it takes to turn neighbor against neighbor. In love with the married John Proctor, young Abigail Williams spreads a bit of gossip about John’s wife Elizabeth. What follows is a hair-raising account of the fire begun by that jealous spark, leaving a community in ruins and many innocent people dead. In the 1950s, Miller was reflecting on McCarthyism and the witch hunts over suspected Communists, but 60+ years later his story still hits home.
Fort Collins’ OpenStage Theatre invited me to attend their production of The Crucible. OpenStage is a regional non-profit theatre. The Crucible was my first opportunity to catch an OpenStage production — we have started on the right foot, as their Crucible is an artful and harrowing experience I won’t soon forget.
Peter Anthony’s stage direction is superb, making use of every inch of the stage and often framing key moments as though they were photographs. Anthony also provides scenic and sound design — both are successful. The production’s sound design mostly consists of abstract, haunting music, effectively adding drama without distracting from the show. Anthony’s scenic design is stunning, simple and open to interpretation. Imposing beams suggest a room without boxing one in — to me, their shape suggests a deconstructed cross. Large, spindly trees provide the woods of Massachusetts. Appropriate for the setting, Anthony’s set and Michael Gorgan’s dressings are made entirely of wood — an all-natural backdrop with nowhere for the unnatural to hide.
Brian Miller’s lighting brings the design together. He paints The Crucible with a soft, diffuse yellow light, saving a starker light for moments of horror (of which there are plenty). In Miller’s hands the Salem woods become a terror, girls in nightgowns become ghostly, a quiet neighborhood becomes a nightmare.
The acting in the production is slightly less even than the visual design. Teal Jandrain and Timothy Ackerman stand out as Abigail Williams and John Proctor; Jandrain grows increasingly maniacal but always remains believable, while Ackerman’s integrity is equal parts inspiring and confounding. Corinne Wieben’s Elizabeth Proctor coldness (“Oh, Elizabeth, your justice would freeze beer!”) thaws gradually, leaving a character you want to protect — after all, couldn’t she be any one of us? Kathy Leonard’s Rebecca Nurse is heartbreaking, and I was impressed by the half-dozen teenage girls who play Abigail’s impressionable entourage. However, on the night I attended, the second half of the performance felt less smooth than the first — jumpy dialogue seemed to stem from actor Ken Fenwick and ripple throughout the otherwise confident cast. That said, a few bumps did not suck the drama from a chilling production story OpenStage has created.
(One other minor complaint: following a heavy, thought-provoking performance such as this one, I want a minute to breathe and reflect on what I have just experienced. It was jarring to find the full cast standing immediately outside the theatre doors moments following the performance — for me, it broke the spell prematurely. It felt unprofessional.)
In the past year, it has felt as though theatres are amping up their offerings of cautionary tales and “it can’t happen here” stories. If, like me, it has been a while since you have dusted off your copy of The Crucible, OpenStage’s production is a fine opportunity to revisit this classic — not only to experience a solid production and the poetry of Arthur Miller’s Tony-winning script, but as a reminder of the ever-present danger of fear-mongering and witch hunts.
Erica Reid is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.