SOULPEPPER’S LATEST PRODUCTION STAYS TRUE TO ARTHUR MILLER’S TAKE ON THE SALEM TRIALS
Story by Kate Fane
Photos by Cylia von Tiedemann
After taking us into a mental asylum (Home), a Hollywood studio (Speed-the-Plow), and a Korean corner store (Kim’s Convenience) Toronto’s Soulpepper theatre company continues its stellar year with a stop in Salem, Massachusetts. Since its first performance in 1952, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible has become a theatre mainstay, performed frequently in America and worldwide. But for all its familiarity, the suspenseful atmosphere and electrifying performances of Soulpepper’s version make for a thoroughly new experience.
If it’s been a while since you took 11th grade English, here’s a brief summary: After a group of local girls are discovered dancing in the woods late at night, the town jumps on the excuse of demonic influences rather than question the moral character of its own daughters. The girl’s ringleader, Abigail Williams, has recently been spurned by her former lover John Proctor, and therefore relishes the opportunity to implicate his wife and other villagers as followers of witchcraft. What follows is a crazed hunt for all those that may be secretly aligned with the devil, eventually forcing dozens of villagers to confess their “blasphemy” or else implicate another to avoid the noose.
Arthur Miller’s loose dramatization of the 1692 Salem witch trials was famously written as a response to the communist paranoia he was surrounded by in 1950’s America. As members of the artistic community were forced to name names to avoid being blacklisted, Miller witnessed firsthand the depths to which his friends and colleagues would sink in order to avoid punishment and social ostracism. Communism may no longer be the subject of national panic, but human nature has remained much the same since 1952. And thus, The Crucible remains a thoroughly relevant work.
Thankfully, Director Arthur Schultz makes no attempt at imposing any modern affectations on the production, and his faithful interpretation is incredibly effective. Schultz manages the play’s escalation of tension masterfully from the first hushed accusations of witchcraft, all the while respecting the script’s many comedic elements. It is easy to doubt in the ridiculous townspeople who start the fervor, yet by the end of the play’s first act, the violent threat underlying their ideas becomes frighteningly clear.
The play’s tense atmosphere is aided by its inspired production design. With a simple set of a wooden floor and matching backdrop acting as both country house and court, the staging gives the proceedings a claustrophobic feel, as though there is no escape from this man-made prison. The production’s minimalist lighting is often tied to the real candles that appear onstage, which also helps to give the actors both a realistic and yet slightly demonic appearance. Most importantly, Soulpepper’s intimate Ballie theatre, with its wooden siding and close quarters, also ensures that we feel like complicit members of the town unable to defend the unjustly accused.
While The Crucible is primarily about the dangerous nature of community, the play heavily relies on the performance of John Proctor. Luckily, Stuart Hughes blows it out of the park. He imbues Proctor with a forceful physicality befitting his moral failings and hotheaded nature. Proctor is not always a sympathetic character, but his transformation over the play’s two-and-a-half-hour run time is an inspiring one that offers the possibility of redemption to anyone brave enough to accept its costs.
As the volatile Abigail Williams, Hannah Miller is convincing in her menace, but both her budding sexuality and her apparent passion for John fall flat. This is quickly forgotten, however, as her character abandons any romantic notions to concentrate on her revenge. Disappearing for much of the play’s middle, her calculated performance in court is downright chilling.
Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster is also a standout in the difficult role of Mary Warren, who wavers between choosing the prestige and attention granted by her lies and the condemnation that follows when she attempts to speak the truth. Lancaster’s understated performance is an absolute delight.
So whether you’ve never experienced The Crucible, saw it performed last month, or swore it off entirely after Winona Ryder and her “accent” got a hold of it, Soulpepper’s production is definitely worth a visit. The Crucible runs until September 22nd at 50 Tank House Lane in the Distillery District. Soulpepper offers rush tickets for those 21 and under for $5. Youth Rush Tickets can be purchased at the box office 30 minutes before all performances. Regular student prices are $32