Written by Arthur Miller. Directed by Jessica Anne Nelson. A UBC Department of Theatre and Film production. At the Frederic Wood Theatre on Thursday, March 15. Continues until March 31
If this were the Salem setting of The Crucible, director Jessica Anne Nelson would definitely be accused of witchcraft. How else to explain her ability to reinterpret and revitalize playwright Arthur Miller’s classic 1953 allegory about McCarthyism as a mesmerizing meditation on inequality, gender, misogyny, and hypocrisy, and essentially turn it into a compelling dark comedy?
Loosely based on the Salem witch trials in 1692-93, The Crucible opens after Abigail Williams (Heidi Damayo) and her group of teenage girlfriends are caught dancing in the woods at night. Two of the girls have mysteriously taken ill and rumours of witchcraft grip the puritanical town. Abigail insists she’s innocent, but when she’s rejected by her former lover (and employer), John Proctor (Aidan Wright), a married, much older father of three, and the formidable Reverend Hale (Jed Weiss) begins to challenge her account of what really happened in the woods, she changes tactics. Abigail accuses Tituba (Sophia Paskalidis), a Barbadian slave, of forcing her to drink blood. Eventually, Tituba breaks down and says the devil is bewitching her. Abigail begins writhing and contorting her body, apparently “possessed.” Within days, all she and her friends need to do is point their fingers at somebody and that person is put on trial for witchcraft.
Eventually, Abigail accuses Elizabeth Proctor (Shona Struthers) of witchcraft. Elizabeth is John’s wife, and she fired Abigail months earlier for being a “harlot.” When Mary Warren (Olivia Lang) finally cracks and admits that she, Abigail, and the others have all been lying about the devil, John confronts the court. The highest judge, Danforth (Frank Zotter), is deeply entrenched in his own power, and his fanatical perversion of faith in the name of being a “good” Christian.
The cast is, for the most part, excellent, particularly Damayo, whose Abigail is dangerous, rejected, frustrated, and doing her best to have some autonomy in her oppression. The saintly Elizabeth could be one-note; instead, Struthers teases out the bitter disappointment and humiliation she feels still toward her philandering, gaslighting husband, and she also gets in some great deadpan delivery, such as when she tells John, “Grant me this, you have a faulty understanding of young girls.” Zotter’s Danforth is deliciously evil; his performance might be over-the-top in other productions, but it perfectly suits the tone that Nelson sets here.
But there are two major flaws in this production of The Crucible. The affectation of a Barbadian accent is jarring and deeply at odds with Nelson’s otherwise progressive staging. Secondly, the sound-design choice to utilize a flurry of hushed whispers and giggling throughout the show was confusing and not well-executed. It also seemed to signal to the audience that it was time for them to start whispering to each other. The show isn’t perfect, but for the most part, Nelson, who is an MFA candidate, exhibits a subversive fearlessness in deconstructing and recontextualizing a contemporary classic. Her Crucible signals a confident and exciting new voice behind the scenes.