The story begins when the Reverend Parris discovers several young women, including his daughter Betty and niece Abigail, dancing in the woods. Yes, dancing! Betty is afflicted by a strange illness that is blamed on the family's Barbadian slave who is accused of conjuring spirits. In what amounts to a harmless prank gone horribly wrong (never underestimate the power of teenage girls), the girls continue to accuse more and more people of witchcraft, who are given the option of confessing or hanging. The whole thing spirals out of control and Abigail soon accuses her former employer/lover John Proctor's wife, an honest and well-respected woman. John attempts to defend his wife but is powerless against the mass hysteria that has overtaken the community. But somehow in the midst this devastating event, he's able to face the truth and become the best version of himself.
|the deputy-governor and John Proctor (Stephen Yoakam and
Erik Heger) with the accusers (photo by T. Charles Erickson)
|Michelle O'Neill and Erik Heger as
Elizabeth and John Proctor
(photo by T. Charles Erickson)
Other highlights in this huge and talented cast include: Stephen Yoakam, always a strong and formidable presence onstage and therefore a perfect choice to play the deputy-governor in charge of the legal proceedings; beloved Guthrie vet Peter Michael Goetz, bringing welcome comic relief through the role of Giles Corey, who was tried along with his wife; the great Wendy Lehr, who could bring comfort to any bewitched person, as noble accused Goody Nurse; and several graduates and students of the U of M/Guthrie BFA program (aka the Guthrie's rich farm system), including Chloe Armao as instigator Abigail Williams, and Ashley Rose Montondo, going from sane and sympathetic friend of the Proctors to full out crazy as Mary Warren.
For the opening dancing-in-the-woods scene, a dozen or so large heavy trees hang just above the stage, their roots not quite touching. They are then raised to the ceiling and hang over the rest of the proceedings like a dark cloud. Ominous sounds and lighting add to the somber and heavy mood (set, lighting, and sound by Richard Hoover, Mark McCullough, and Scott W. Edwards). Jane Greenwood's prim and proper period costumes look so authentic you feel like you're right back there in 1692.
As a theater geek I should have seen this play before now, but I have not, and only have vague memories of the 1996 movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder. Now I get why it's such a classic - an important and frightening incident in our history that still has echos in today's world, a personal story of one man's struggle with honor, faith, and redemption, an intense and compelling three hours of theater. It's also a powerful argument for why the separation of church and state is absolutely essential and one of the best things about this country, so that no one person's religious belief is allowed to take away the rights, or in this case the life, of another person who's seen to be in some way evil under that belief.
The two shows on the Guthrie's main stages right now are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play on the Proscenium Stage is a new, modern, creative, and innovative play. Across the lobby on the Thrust Stage, The Crucible is a fine and faithful production of a beloved and acclaimed classic. For traditional theater excellently executed with a huge cast full of mostly local talent and top-notch production values, it's a play not to be missed (playing now through May 24).
*Read more about Joe Dowling and the Guthrie Theater's relationship with Arthur Miller here.
**The Guthrie will celebrate Joe Dowling in a gala performance on June 6 - limited seats still available.
This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.