This Carnegie Mellon student production of "The Crucible" is the second Arthur Miller play here this season. The Pittsburgh Playhouse Rep presented "All My Sons" last month. The two are bookends to Miller's masterpiece, "Death of a Salesman," and seeing them back to back, I appreciated how far the playwright had grown from the 1947 melodrama to the morality play of 1953.
"The Crucible" emerges as the best of the three, more eloquent and insightful, and despite Miller's focus on anti-theatricality, more polished as entertainment. My renewed appreciation comes from the straightforward direction of CMU's Tony McKay, who allows "The Crucible" to unfold without embellishment or artifice, allowing us to savor Miller's art on its own.
The simple, shadowy set by Jared Patrick Gerbig, with its tall timbers and unfinished wooden floor, captures the rude settlement of Salem surrounded by the Massachusetts forest where something evil seems to lurk among the trees. This is Colonial Puritan America in the 1690s, a community whose future was still in doubt, threatened by Indians, disease and, worst of all, in Miller's view, ignorance.
Amid this uncertainty came the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-93, a well-documented event that gave the playwright lots of material to chew on. It's a familiar story:
Girls in the grip of some kind of hysteria blamed on witchcraft by the superstitious Puritans bring suspicion on at least 200 adults and lead to the execution of 20 of them, one crushed by rocks. Doubters are condemned, neighbors turn on neighbors and intolerance triumphs, if briefly.
Himself a target of the 1950s hysteria of McCarthyism, Miller refashioned history into an allegory for his times. If the play has a major weakness, it is the often black-and-white nature of Miller's version, particularly in the major characters of John and Elizabeth Proctor and accuser Abigail Williams. There's not a lot of subtlety to these creations, something Mr. McKay's direction emphasizes. The performances of Brian Muller and Bridget Peterson as the Proctors and Taylor Rose, with an abundant blossom of red hair, as Abigail reflect that direct approach, which enhances the production.
Thomas Constantine Moore plays the stereotypical villain, Governor Danforth, with an imposing voice and a blinkered intolerance as a symbol of the kind of blind authority Miller was attacking. The quartet of actors is supported by a uniformly polished cast.
The climax of "The Crucible" is the confrontation between the accusers and the accused. It's played a bit over-the-top here, but, in director McKay's no-nonsense treatment, the scene reveals Miller's personal connection to the play.
There's another play in town about a New England village long ago, "Our Town" at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. "The Crucible," written after World War II, turns Thornton Wilder's sentimental faith in small-town life on its head by demonstrating that even the good folk of Grover's Corners can turn ugly when faced with trouble.
There's also a footnote to recent Pittsburgh productions linked to "The Crucible." City Theatre presented "Abigail/1702" by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa in May, which imagined the fate of Abigail Williams a decade after she fled Salem.
Retired Post-Gazette book editor Bob Hoover reviews theater for the newspaper. First Published October 7, 2013 8:00 PM