Wednesday, July 5, 2023

"The Crucible" by Hang Fire Productions at the Historic Mounds Theatre

A #TCTheater company so new they don't even have a website or an Instagram page, Hang Fire Productions is making their debut with the classic play The Crucible. I'm not sure which came first, the company name or this production, but "Hang Fire" is certainly an appropriate name for a troupe tackling this dramatization of the Salem witch trials in late 17th Century Massachusetts, in which a firestorm of fear and accusations resulted in the hanging of 19 innocent people. More than 300 years after the events depicted and 70 years since Arthur Miller wrote the play in response to McCarthyism, the themes of religious fanaticism, mob mentality, the miscarriage of justice, and scapegoating are still relevant. If anything, with the anonymity and viral nature of the internet, it's almost easier for this kind of thing to happen. Hang Fire Productions, formed from some of the artists involved in the now defunct Mission Theatre, makes a promising debut with this strong production. Their short two-weekend run concludes this weekend at the Historic Mounds Theatre* (click here for info and tickets).

John Proctor (Derek Dirlam) gets up close and personal
with chief accuser Abigail (Rachel Linder, photo by Will Hanson)
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 the wife of her former employer/lover John Proctor, 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.**

never underestimate the power of teenage girls
(photo by Will Hanson)
This production is by no means set in the modern era, but when the girls are dancing to Janis Joplin, along with the modern and relevant songs on the pre-show and intermission soundtrack, it allows us to see the similarities. Penelope Parsons-Lord directs the play with urgency, the grounded humanity of the characters mixed with some fantastical elements like spooky sound effects, and the girls speaking and moving in unison. The Mounds Theatre's space is used nicely, with most of the action happening on stage, but some entrances and exits made through the audience, and some intro scenes occurring off-stage. The set consists of a backdrop that could be out of a modern church, with rustic furniture in the different settings (bedroom, the Proctor home, the court, the prison). A consistent fabric is used in the period Puritan costumes, a sort of wide seersucker. The girls are all dressed alike in plain beige dresses with pale blue aprons and headscarves, Mrs. Proctor in a slightly darker blue, with the same color used for John's shirt, tying them together as a unit, the clothing appearing distressed in the final prison scene. And in an extra attention to detail, the women appeared to be wearing period appropriate undergarments, i.e., corsets, as well. (Set design by Michael Haas, costume design by Penelope Parsons-Lord and Krista Weiss, sound design by Steve Larson.)

the Governor (Alexsander Sievert) forces Mrs. Proctor
(Penelope Parsons-Lord) to speak (photo by Will Hanson)
This is a true ensemble piece with a huge cast, some of which only appear in one or two of the four acts. There's really not a weak link among them. Derek Dirlam is a strong yet vulnerable John Proctor, well-matched in director Penelope Parsons-Lord, sympathetic as his wife Elizabeth, the relationship between them believable. There's a bit of gender-bending in this production; a couple of male roles are played by women, and even though women would never be reverends or judges in this time period, it works. Alyssa Ehlen gives a nuanced performance as Reverend Hale, an initial supporter of the campaign who changes her mind when things get out of hand, and Molly Choate is appropriately hard and unlikeable as one of the judges of the case. Other highlights include Rachel Linder as a fierce and scary Abigail, Maddie Neal as the Proctors' employee who defends them until the pressure becomes too great, Kjer Whiting as the ambitious Reverend Parris who cares only for himself, and Aleksander Sievert as the unrelenting Deputy Governor Danforth presiding over the case.

As I was leaving the theater, I heard someone say, "OK I've reached my limit, I don't ever need to see The Crucible again." I understand the sentiment; it's a heavy piece that explores serious issues we're still dealing with today. That makes watching it a little uncomfortable. But it's not a bad thing to be reminded of a failure of justice, and the dangers of religious fanaticism. The Crucible is a classic for a reason, a well-constructed historical play that's unfortunately always timely. It's a big challenge, and this new company is up to it. I look forward to seeing more from Hang Fire Productions.

*As you prepare to make your way to the Mounds Theatre, note that there is construction and road closures around the theater, and your Google maps might take you in the wrong direction, as mine did. Allow plenty of time and follow the detours.

**Plot summary borrowed from what I've written about previous productions.