Next Stage Theatre Company is presenting a compelling, if modest, new production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” at the Alley Stage in the former Theatre in the Square building through September 28.
In 1953, Miller focused on delivering the story of the Salem witch trials as a broadly damning, tragic spirit of history at a time that its telling could not be easily brushed aside or compartmentalized. “The Crucible” wasn’t so much “about McCarthyism,” as students are often told today, but it was knowingly unleashed into a time when viewers didn’t have the easy, comfortable recourse of saying, “Well, thank God, that could never happen again.” The characters are motivated by moral forces that border on compulsion and that become fatal flaws in a wider, dirtier political world. It would be hard to find a better playwright or script for almost any time.
Next Stage seems to have a powerful, if uneven, production on its hands. Set with modern touches, its strengths are especially apparent in well-limned character studies and the fact that few major theaters in Atlanta are engaging with such classics. By default, some of the important teeth-cutting is left to the smaller ones.
If one simply reads the script of “The Crucible,” the character of the recently installed Reverend Parris comes off as the central instigator of the witchcraft mess, a mass hysteria set off after he stumbles upon a group of young girls dancing in the woods by moonlight. But, however pretentious Parris could be read, in this production actor Max Flick clearly brings out a sense that he wears with discomfort the robe of religious and temporal power.
Tapping that vulnerability, Flick shows the telling wobble of fear and helplessness behind Parris’ calling in religious authorities to set things right. The town gossip about witchcraft must be thrown into the crucible of interrogation, person by person, and it is this cleansing aspect of the ensuing trials that keeps Parris from derailing them, in addition to his fear of embarrassment at being a victim of, or not better than, his rural circumstances and neighbors.
Paul Gourdeau plays a convincing naysayer to the proceedings as John Proctor. He has the virtue of knowing the game is rigged, but also an impugnable weakness that undoes his efficacy in halting it. As with Flick, Gourdeau brings out his early primal struggle with weakness in his later, steadfast cleaving to any moral certainties and truths that he can find. With his wife’s blessing, it’s a pure unadulterated truth found in faith.
When Gourdeau is on the stage, he cuts through as a formidable figure and grabs at least some attention even when he’s on the periphery. Diane LeGrand Hail plays an understanding Rebecca Nurse, the midwife who naturally would be under suspicion for cavorting with the devil. She’s a simple character, morally honest, and Hail demonstrates these subtle qualities and stubborn integrity, admirably belying the trial system’s injustice. When loyalties are divided, the principles themselves are in the crucible. But the trial court and religious authorities demand undivided loyalty.
At the end of the Next Stage performance, a video sequence shown on monitors refers to the victims of the Holocaust, McCarthyism, Jonestown and the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which might encapsulate one reason why “The Crucible” isn’t common in larger theaters with more resources. The play, like other classics, is hard to market, and producers likely fear that they can’t reach audiences without a broad or simple current-events hook, which unfortunately here layers over the play a priggish, didactic feeling. The power of “The Crucible” is somewhat sapped.
But Next Stage is to be commended for taking on such a hefty work. Productions of Miller, Albee, Beckett, Shaw, Ibsen and Chekhov are about as rare as hen’s teeth in Atlanta, and in my estimation they shouldn’t be; it’s absolutely crucial for actors, directors and audiences to engage with great work if we’re to have a healthy contemporary theater scene. It’s a missing rung on the ladder, and it’s hard to imagine climbing up much further when it’s not in place.