Friday, September 28, 2007

The Crucible (The SOB Review)

The Crucible (The SOB Review) - Downstairs Theatre, Steppenwolf, Chicago, IL

*** (out of ****)

"Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?"

Those thirteen unfortunate words, first uttered sixty years ago in 1947 by Congressman J. Parnell Thomas -- chair of the House Un-American Activities Committee (which got its start in 1938) -- helped stoke the fire for one of the 20th Century's worst witch hunts in the United States. A rabid ultra-right wing Republican from New Jersey, Thomas launched the intensive investigation into who in Hollywood had any ties to the Communist Party, ultimately resulting in widespread blacklisting. Speaking out was unthinkable.

Three years later, a junior senator from Wisconsin named Joseph McCarthy announced that he had the names of 205 individuals within the U.S. Department of State who were "known" members of the American Communist Party. Of course, those numbers kept changing, but no matter. Aided by a young Roy Cohn, he exhibited an uncanny knack for whipping the American people into hysteria that their government had been infiltrated by Communists sympathetic to the Soviet Union. Out of the burgeoning Cold War, McCarthyism was born.

The reckless Tailgunner Joe was out to make a name for himself while vilifying others. His crusade culminated in the infamous 1954 Army-McCarthy Hearings, during which Joseph Welch, chief counsel for the U.S. Army finally erupted during questioning, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"

Since the Army-McCarthy Hearings were televised, Americans had one of their first unique opportunities to see their leaders exposed for what they were. Support for McCarthy rapidly dissipated, and by the end of the year, he was censured by the Senate.

Before McCarthy's last act of desperation played out, three valiant acts made their 1953 debut on Broadway in The Crucible -- Arthur Miller's classic, allegorical tale of how easily otherwise rational individuals in colonial Salem, Massachusetts would blindly accept a charlatan's testimony about practicing witchcraft. To characterize Miller's mid-century timing as brave would be an incredible understatement, but he certainly contributed to the national conversation in a profound and consequential way.

Now, as realized through Anna D. Shapiro's fiery, "color-blind" casted production at Chicago's Steppenwolf, it's hard not to find the haunting recreation of the actual 1690s Salem witch hunts disturbing. Yet it's the discovery of layer after layer of allegories abounding that makes this morality play unusually fresh and modern.

Certainly first and foremost is the parallel that Miller intended with the hunt for Communists under every rock. But with the ruggedly righteous James Vincent Meredith (above photo) portraying protagonist John Proctor, his subsequent lynching makes it hard not to wonder whether his casting wasn't really a deliberate decision on the part of Shapiro after all. And while the last week's headlines could not have been foreseen, the hateful images out of Jena, Louisiana of hanging nooses made the parallels to today even more chilling.

As if that weren't all, The Crucible's unelected official Deputy Governor John Danforth (a brilliantly subtle performance by Francis Guinan) blithely states, "But you must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there is no road between." Suddenly, as if the other modern allegories weren't enough, Miller's words of moral absolutes effectively come back to bite a certain commander-in-chief, making this about as contemporary production as one could expect.

Overall, the cast is terrific. Special props must be given to Alana Arenas (in the photo above) as the conflicted Susanna Wolcott, Mary Seibel as stoic Rebecca Nurse and Maury Cooper, who provides some of the performance's most welcome comic relief as Giles Corey.

If I have one quibble, and it's not insubstantial, it would be on how the supposed demons of the young would-be witches are manifested. With heartwrenching screams, essential dialogue is often obscured. To be quite frank, I strained to hear much of what was being said, a difficulty I had not previously experienced at this theatre.

Yet, Shapiro's fierce, take no prisoners mix in The Crucible makes for a completely enthralling evening of live theatre.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.

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