Most of us who paid attention and did our reading in high school English Literature classes have come across “The Crucible.” I went on to earn a B.A. in the discipline in 2000, followed by an M.A. from Northeastern Illinois University in 2007.
Throughout the years of study and into my tenure as a Chicago theater critic with EDGE Media Network, the work of playwright Arthur Miller, and in particular, this allegory of 1950s era McCarthyism in the United States, has been a ubiquitous creative presence.
This past weekend as I took my seat for Director Jonathan Berry’s production of “The Crucible,” the kickoff to Steppenwolf Theatre’s 2017-2018 Steppenwolf for Young Adults (SYA) season, I thought there was nothing new to learn about Miller’s oft-produced work. I was wrong.
The story, per press materials, is well known: “The people of Salem are whipped into a bloodthirsty frenzy by a series of misinterpretations after a group of teenage girls are accused of dancing devilishly in the woods. Fearing retribution, the girls begin a chain of finger-pointing until neighbor turns against neighbor, whispers become testimony, fabrications become facts, and a once powerless teenage girl suddenly has the ability to decide the fate of all those around her.”
The synopsis is familiar, but Berry’s execution is all new. Arnel Sanciano’s spartan set design conveys the barren, cold, passionless external excesses of early American Protestant communities, while leaving literal room to demonstrate the complicated natures of Arthur Miller’s human subjects.
It’s a drab catwalk runway setup surrounded by chairs in which cast members rotate through the scenes as both subject and spectator. The device is spectacularly effective in delivering an ecosystem in which eyes are always watching, in which characters are present even when they’re not involved in a particular dialogue exchange.
Naima Hebrail Kidjo, a Steppenwolf Theatre Company newcomer, also brings fresh perspective to Abigail Williams, the lovestruck, scorned minister’s niece whom community members of all genders, age and religious devotion learn to fear. Her performance is well matched by Travis A. Knight, another Steppenwolf rookie, who conveys a flawed John Proctor’s moral conflict and steadfast determination to save his community from itself. Kidjo and Knight display an electric chemistry that does more than hint at the fleeting, mutual passion that once existed between the characters.
And this is a must if an audience is to believe to the lengths to which both Abigail and John will go to achieve their ends. Abigail is nakedly ambitious to become the second Mrs. Proctor, and manipulates the weaknesses of Salem residents into furthering her goal. These weaknesses are personified by supporting characters who could be accused of existing in one-dimension without the nuanced performances of the talented cast.
Cynical greed, thy name is Reverend Parris (Peter Moore). Ann Putnam (Stephanie Shum) is desperate to find a reason for the death and illness of eight consecutive children, and witchcraft will do. The saintly Rebecca Nurse (Millie Hurley) is willing to die for her conviction that Abigail’s accusations are the real evil at work.
In previous encounters with “The Crucible” text, the relationship between John Proctor and his betrayed wife Elizabeth (Kristina Valada-Viars) is an incidental bore. In the text as written, Elizabeth is merely a cipher for her spouse’s guilt and self-recrimination, a virtuous, suffering foil to Abigail’s id-driven Jezebel.
In Berry’s production, and animated by Valada-Viars prodigious gifts, this Abigail is afraid, angry, resigned, hopeful, loving and bitter in equal portions — exactly what an audience would expect from a woman forced pay for her husband’s transgressions publicly and privately. Because of this authenticity, the audience can more easily accept Proctor’s about-face rejection of Abigail and subsequent risk of his own life to restore Elizabeth’s honor.
The production runs two hours and 45 minutes, with a short intermission, a worthwhile investment of time. From the vantage point of late 2017, “The Crucible” may remind audience members of events more current than the 1950s congressional communist witch hunt. Berry’s interpretation is a civics lesson — past and present — in addition to engaging entertainment.
“The Crucible” runs through October 21 at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org