Chicago Theatre Review
Vengeance Walks the Streets of Salem
The Crucible – Steppenwolf’s Theatre for Young Audiences
Arthur Miller’s 1953 Tony Award-winner is, on the surface, an emotionally charged dramatization of the 1692 Salem Witchcraft Trials. But Miller’s motivation for writing this heartbreaking tragedy was to create an allegory for witch hunts of the McCarthy Era, during which he and many other citizens were accused of being members of the Communist Party. They were all believed to be conspiring to overthrow the U.S. government. Miller’s comparison to the 17th century witchcraft hysteria is not only logical but especially timely, as we endure the new witch hunts of the current Washington administration. Extremist groups still accuse and/or question Americans’ loyalty or subversion without proper evidence and thus this play continues to be relevant today.
Because the subject matter resonates so strongly with contemporary audiences it’s especially important that it be played with truth, and in this respect Steppenwolf’s outstanding new Production for Young Audiences is stellar. It’s as raw and honest as any you’ll ever see. Jonathan Berry’s production is riveting and compelling, stark and multilayered, with sharply guided direction and soul-searing performances, performed by a gifted cast of 13 diverse actors, several playing multiple parts.
Playing his role with straightforwardness, contemporary realness, great warmth and sincerity, Steppenwolf newcomer Travis A. Knight is simply magnificent as the play’s protagonist, John Proctor. His humane, honest portrayal of a simple New England farmer, guarding a personal secret that will become his fatal flaw, is at once strong and humble, proud and remorseful. He’s terrific and a perfect match for the cool but gentle and earnest Kristina Valada-Viars as his stoic wife, Elizabeth. Bound together by their sober, stable love for each other, they soon find their characters slowly sinking, along with their friends, into a horrific mire of suspicion and jealousy. Supported by a company of terrific veteran actors, such as Millie Hurley playing both the motherly Rebecca Nurse as well as her anxious husband Francis Nurse, and Larry Baldacci as feisty Giles Corey, and a humorous Sarah Good, the audience’s empathy and hope grows strong for these Salem citizens.
Erik Hellman plays visiting cleric authority Reverend Hale with deep compassion, intelligence and reserved respect. He finds himself torn between his duty to the court and his growing doubt in the reality of witchcraft. Young Taylor Blim’s touching, sympathetic portrait of an earnest, easily-swayed Mary Warren strikes a sympathetic, honest chord. Naima Hebrail Kidjo creates a smugly conniving Abigail Williams, a young girl with revenge on her mind and the lust for another woman’s husband in her heart. Michael Patrick Thornton is the play’s real antagonist as an intimidating and unyielding Governor Danforth. He’s a man on a mission, a judge who strongly believes he’s doing God’s work while refusing to budge or admit any misjudgment. As Danforth, Thornton commands the second half of this play, ruling the stage in a very candid, unfeigned portrayal of an authority figure out to right the wrongs of New England.
Peter Moore’s portrayal of the selfish, paranoid, almost villainous Reverend Parris, provides another adversary for Proctor and his neighbors. Moore’s portrayal is staunch and materialistic, always thinking of how to line his pockets for personal profit instead of considering his flock. He’s matched by Philip Winston’s avaricious Thomas Putnam, a greedy, property-hungry landowner who would sacrifice the lives of his neighbors in order to buy up their homes. He’s coupled with the incredibly talented Stephanie Shum as his narrow-minded wife Ann. Both actors play multiple roles with ease, with Winston creating a comical jailer in John Willard; and Ms. Shum playing both young Susanna Walcott and elderly Martha Corey with equal conviction.
Avi Roque’s excellent portrayal of methodical shopkeeper-turned-court official, Ezekial Cheever, along her humorous turn at playing an easily-manipulated young Mercy Lewis, are both crisp and complete. Add to this the always brilliant Echaka Agba’s multilayered portrayals of both the persecuted Barbados slave, Tituba and Danforth’s assisting judge, Hathorne, and you have a mighty cast of talent working their collective magic to bring this frightening tale to life.
Arnel Sancianco’s sparse, imaginative set is essentially a raised platform, a minister’s pulpit, surrounded by the offstage cast, constantly observing the action from the Bentwood chairs that line the playing area. The vertical space is dominated by a series of wood-hewn Gothic arches that soar to the heavens. Lee Fiskness’ starkly garish lighting design completes the look of this production. Talented costumer Izumi Inaba has designed a black and white wardrobe for her actors that blend Puritanical austerity with a modern look and sensibility.
This may be one of the finest productions for Young Audiences that this illustrious theatre company has ever offered. While Arthur Miller wrote this play as his response to McCarthyism in the 1950s, it also happens to tap into the politics of today’s callous, uncompromising and bullying national government. The astute audience member will recognize some of Washington’s more antagonistic players in some of these characters, with John and Elizabeth Proctor, Giles Corey, Rebecca Nurse and their friends and neighbors representing the common man. This play is not only timely but a frightening reminder of how mob mentality can destroy. It’s an intelligent examination of how dangerous vengeance can become, a force that once walked the streets of Salem.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented through October 21 by Steppenwolf’s Theatre for Young Audiences, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the Steppenwolf box office, by calling 312-335-1650 or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.