Mr. Burns, the excellent play now on the Guthrie Theater’s McGuire Proscenium Stage, is about the malleability of myth: the way tales change over time to suit the needs of the tellers. As my aunt Edie, who came with me to see the Guthrie’s Crucible, pointed out, the story of the Salem witch trials is a prime illustration of that process.
“Although the Salem witch trials took place more than three hundred years ago,” Susan Castillo notes in A New Literary History of America, “the most irrational aspects of the American psyche can still be provoked by elements of the story.” America’s joint fascination with and repulsion by sex (particularly when it involves teenagers); our tendency towards religious hypocrisy; our infinite capacity for public shaming; a reflexive suspicion of immigrants and people of color: sadly, there’s something in this story to resonate with every generation.
Arthur Miller’s 1953 play, though it was unmistakably written with an eye towards the irrational and dangerous anti-communist fervor then gripping the nation, has retained its power as a tense drama about a society collapsing upon itself with recriminations as petty grievances suddenly turn deadly. Unfortunately the Guthrie’s new production, directed by outgoing artistic director Joe Dowling, is a merely serviceable rendering that, despite occasional flashes of inspiration, tends to sag into shouting matches.
The production shouts with a bang, as Reverend Parris (Bill McCallum) comes upon his daughter Betty (Rebecca Leiner) and niece Abigail (Chloe Armao), among many other adolescent girls, dancing in the woods with Tituba (Greta Oglesby), his Carib Indian slave. Richard Hoover’s set, which creates a full-size forest of dangling trunks on the Wurtele Thrust Stage, creates a thrilling space for this opening scene and the sudden transition to the Parris home, as the trees rise upward to hang above the proceedings like dark swords of Damocles.
Oglesby’s portrayal of Tituba is rich and absorbing, but, alas, The Crucible doesn’t have much more to do with her: the play quickly pivots to focus on Abigail’s relationships with her uncle, her former employer John Proctor (Erik Heger), and his wife Elizabeth (Michelle O’Neill)—who tends to agree with John’s repeated characterization of Abigail as a “whore,” despite the fact that “rape survivor” might be a more accurate way to describe the young woman’s status.
The proceedings unfold apace, with the girls—who find their accusations of witchcraft taken with deadly seriousness—find themselves wrapped up in a game they can’t afford to stop playing, much as some of them long to. Dowling and his cast hit all Miller’s notes, but don’t leave the space between those notes for the characters to breathe and grow. Armao looks possessed, all right, but nothing more or less than that: her important early scene with Heger plays as a breathless, bitter confrontation that simply pits them against each other rather than suggesting shades of the restrictive society in which they both live.
Things rumble along in that fashion, with most characters flattened into one-dimensional cartoons who only do what they need to do to advance the story. This exaggerated treatment, as is often the case at the Guthrie, feeds the audience’s desire for belly laughs rather than the rueful chuckles a more understated treatment of this material might evoke.
Even Hoover’s set turns out to be a one-trick pony: while his forest, including the multilayered backdrop, is certainly striking, once the trees are up, the stage is blandly conventional, and Mark McCullough’s uninspired lighting doesn’t do much to suggest the play’s archetypal New England setting. (For comparison, consider how absorbingly the company now known as Transatlantic Love Affair evoked the Appalachian setting of Red Resurrected—with virtually no set at all.)
The real standouts of this cast, even overshadowing competent leads Heger and O’Neill, are Peter Michael Goetz as the indignant Giles Corey and the invaluable Wendy Lehr as the quietly dignified Rebecca Nurse. The stage comes alive when these two veteran actors are on it—they’re heartbreakingly human, finding depths in their relatively minor characters in a manner that hints at what might have been achieved among the more prominent players.
The final dose of thunder in this disappointingly unsubtle production comes during the curtain call, as the actors take their bows to a hammering soundtrack of percussion courtesy of sound designer Scott W. Edwards. I didn’t need to be reminded that I had just seen a tragedy: I felt like that had been screamed in my ear for the last three hours.