Saturday, May 5, 2018

Olney's 'Crucible' is unforgettable

Olney Theatre Center presents Arthur Miller's The Crucible now through May 20, 2018.

A theater classic, The Crucible, is a play to see before you die, or to see again, especially during this trial of national turmoil, and I'm glad to find Web lists agree with me on its importance.
Mia Rilette (Betty Parris), Guadalupe Campos (Mercy Lewis), Dani Stoller (Abigail Williams), and Yakima Rich (Susanna Walcott) in The Crucible at Olney Theatre Center (Photo: Stan Barouh)

The show, the Tony Award winner for Best Play of 1953, is presented at the Olney Theatre Center for the first time and chosen, the artistic directors told me, in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election.  

When a recent poll says the majority of Republicans believe the press is the enemy of the American people (quoting Donald Trump), it's time to sit up and take notice that the freedoms we value are under attack, like they were when Joseph McCarthy attacked persons he deemed suspicious, two who were executed.

Scott Parkinson as Reverend John Hale and the girls of Salem. (Photo: Stan Barouh)
Arthur Miller (1915-2005), the Crucible writer and usually considered one of the world's greatest playwrights, places a mid-1950s American tragedy in the context of an earlier crime, the Salem, Massachusetts witch trials of 1692 and 1693 when 20 were executed, their deaths stemming from hysterical young girls.

In his metaphor, Mr. Miller skillfully weaves the girls' frenzy as substitutes for those which gripped the nation during the McCarthy years of the 1950s and the "Red Scare." After The Crucible debuted and largely because of it, Mr. Miller was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to testify. Various organizations banned and boycotted his plays.

 Shpend Xani (Judge Hathorne), Dylan Fleming (John Willard), Dani Stoller (Abigail Williams), Chris Genebach (John Proctor), Jonathan Atkinson (Ezekiel Cheever), and Miranda Rizzolo (Mary Warren) in The Crucible at Olney Theatre Center (Photo: Stan Barouh)

He began working on his play the day he heard his good friend and director, Elia Kazan, at HUAC name actors and playwrights, including Miller, who Kazan thought had ties to leftist causes. (Read a fascinating account of their relationship and their back-and-forth productions here.)

Although Mr. Miller claimed that all his characters in The Crucible were actual persons from Salem, he blended some of their personalities and changed ages for others to better accommodate his script which took him about a year to write, according to a 1996 article for the New Yorker.

Scott Parkinson (Reverend John Hale) and Lilian Oben (Tituba) in The Crucible at Olney Theatre Center (Photo: Stan Barouh)

Olney's director Eleanor Holdridge deserves credit for the strong, persuasive performances she draws from the 19-member cast, notably, Dani Stoller as Abigail Williams, Chris Genebach (John Proctor), Scott Parkinson (Rev. John Hale), Rachel Zampelli (Elizabeth Proctor), and Paul Morella (Deputy Governor Danforth), the latter deserving special recognition for his realistic portrayal of a despised person who quickly conjures up hate from the audience.

To introduce the show and set the tone, scenic designer Andrew R. Cohen crafted angled pieces of wood to hang mid-air in stark fashion to greet theatergoers. Minimalist visuals throughout the performance permit the dialogue to dominate, as it should, including the second act when
ugly, low-hanging fluorescents give the stage a prison-like environment and grilling room, as the accused hear and argue their sentencing.

Applause to the graphic designer for the excellent logo for the play and to the choreographer, Kelly Crandall d'Amboise, whose dancing girls and antics never miss a beat in original composition, and none from director's notes, artistic directors Jason Loewith and Jason King Jones told me.

Excellent period costuming by Sarah Cubbage, effective lighting by Nancy Schertler, and original music by Patrick Calhoun all contribute to the success.

Other Crucible cast members are Jonathan Atkinson, Guadalupe Campos, Brigid Cleary, Dylan Fleming, Jessica Lefkow, Craig MacDonald, Bolton Marsh, Lilian Oben, Yakima Rich, Caroline Rilette, Mia Rilette, Miranda Rizzolo, Michael Russotto, and Shpend Xani.

Dori Beau Seigneur was wig and hair consultant, and John Keith Hall, production stage manager.

Today in Africa, "witch camps" exist, used to rid communities of older women who practice "witchcraft," reminding me of similar places in our own United States, like the Weston State Hospital in Weston, West Virginia, now called the Trans-Alleghany Lunatic Asylum, a convenient place for men to dump the wives and "witches" they wanted to expel from their lives. The hospital closed in 1994, but you may tour it now (highly recommended).

Wikipedia defines crucible as "a severe test or trial; alternately, a container in which metals or other substances are subjected to high temperatures."

There was a whole lot of shoutin' goin' on.

What: The Crucible by Arthur Miller

Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832.

When: Now through May 20, 2018, Wednesday through Saturdays at 8 p.m., weekend matinees at 2 p.m., a 2 p.m. matinee Wednesday, May 9, and a sign-interpreted performance on Thursday, May 10, at 8:00 p.m.

Tickets: Begin at $47 with discounts for groups, seniors, military, and students.

Ages: Recommended for ages 13+ due to mature themes, extreme emotions, actions, and political allegories.

Duration: 2 hours and 45 minutes (which flies by) and one intermission

Refreshments: Available and may be taken to seats

Parking: Free and plentiful on-site

Post-show discussions: After matinees on May 12 and 19

For more information: 301-924-3400 for the box office or 301-924-4485


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