A Multilayered Masterpiece | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

A Multilayered Masterpiece 

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THE CRUCIBLE

Raven Theatre

I'd forgotten just how good The Crucible is. You read such plays in high school, and by the time you've sat through some mope's lecture about private versus public responsibility and after you've written your five-paragraph theme about whether one needs to obey corrupt laws and gotten your check plus on your multiple-choice exam you're so sick of great works of American literature you can't appreciate them anymore. Raven Theatre's production of The Crucible helps you get over that.

Everyone talks about how Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible in response to the communist witch-hunts of the 50s, about how the blacklisting recalled the persecution of so-called witches in Salem, Massachusetts, in the latter part of the 17th century, about how Miller's refusal to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee mirrored John Proctor's unwillingness to follow a tribunal's order to incriminate those who were said to have trafficked with the devil.

These are valid parallels, but to dwell on them does Miller's multilayered play something of a disservice. The Crucible can be viewed from tons of perspectives. At first it's the tragedy of farmer John Proctor, who's willing to forfeit his good name to save the innocent from execution and Salem from madness. But it's also the tragedy of Reverend Hale, who comes to deliver the town from evil only to find his faith shaken as he becomes a collaborator in the murder of innocent people. It's the story of the young, vindictive Abigail Williams, who, wanting to save herself and punish her former employer Elizabeth Proctor, who threw her out for sleeping with her husband, winds up sending people to their deaths. And it's the tragedy of the "witches," the unwitting victims of Abigail's ploys. The McCarthy era is just one of the many eras recalled by The Crucible, which is strong enough to be the starting point for discussions of dozens of historical incidents in which mass paranoia and ignorance caused people to accuse the innocent to save themselves.

Miller's characters are fascinating and complex, the male characters apparently more so in the estimation of the playwright, who devotes page upon page of character description to the men and only a sentence or two to the women. Though I'm troubled by Miller's seeming willingness to lay more blame on the cowardly followers of corrupt laws than on the authors of the laws, I realize this is only one possible reading of the play, which is deep enough to invite many other more and less palatable interpretations.

Raven Theatre's production rips through this morality play, capturing all its power and successfully portraying the magnificent complexity of the characters and conflicts. By staging it very simply with a minimum of set pieces and props, director Michael Menendian allows us to focus on Miller's words and to remember why this is one of the masterpieces of modern theater.

Menendian has remained faithful to the text for the most part. A few characters have been eliminated but will only be missed by purists and sticklers. A sort of witches' dance in the opening of the play is superfluous but not overly annoying. Menendian also appears to have made special efforts to get his actors to speak clearly and to enunciate precisely the sometimes stilted language Miller uses to emphasize the rigidity of customs in 17th-century Massachusetts; almost all the actors do an excellent job.

What is most successful about Menendian's production is his making the play his number-one priority, so that individual performances don't divert attention from the issues Miller addresses. Some excellent acting is also going on here. Tom Drummer expertly portrays Reverend Hale's downward spiral from naive do-gooder to broken coward. David Pudwill's John Proctor is utterly believable; sometimes he's so good it's scary. And Carri Levinson as the Proctors' beleaguered serving woman Mary gives a performance of uncommon emotional depth.

There are 16 members in Raven's cast, and not all of them are as good as these three. But director Menendian diminishes their faults by keeping the play moving at a quick clip and by allowing each performer to showcase strengths and downplay weaknesses. If you're looking for an example of great ensemble playing, this is it.

Now, if Raven Theatre could just help me get through The Glass Menagerie again . . .

REDBAITING, BLACKLISTING AND THE AMERICAN BLONDE

Raven Theatre

Laura Raidonis's Redbaiting, Blacklisting and the American Blonde plays as an off-night companion piece to The Crucible, but seeing its depiction of Miller's testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee after watching The Crucible is sort of a bummer.

Raidonis's one-act attempts to explore the similarities between the red-baiters who hounded Miller and the paparazzi who tormented his one-time wife Marilyn Monroe. Raidonis cuts back and forth between Miller's and Monroe's public and private lives, showing how HUAC and the press destroyed any chance the couple had for romance. Every moment of tenderness between them is interrupted by the panel of congressional investigators or a couple of grinning photographers.

It seems as though Raidonis was trying to write the play Miller might have written if he'd made his indictment of the McCarthy witch-hunts literal instead of metaphorical. Using language reminiscent of John Proctor's in The Crucible, she sets up Miller's moral conflict about addressing the committee and refusing to name "communists."

But where Miller's characters spring to life, Raidonis's remain dull and inert. Though the material has obviously been researched thoroughly and though some of Miller's words are taken from public documents and his writings, neither he nor Monroe seems to be a living, breathing human. Miller is all self-righteousness and noble angst, and Monroe, though tragic, is something of a dip. When she tells Miller she feels dumb around his intellectual friends and he shouldn't be wasting time on someone like her, she sounds like Sugar Kane, the character she played in Some Like It Hot. Though the issues Raidonis is dealing with have real dramatic potential, her play remains incredibly cold, more book report than drama.

Laurie Dawn and Jim Winfrey as Monroe and Miller play the stereotypes of their characters' public personas well, but the script doesn't allow them much opportunity for depth. Dawn has Monroe's trademark poses down with ghoulish perfection, but there's no heart here. The play makes Miller and Monroe's private life look every bit as empty as their well-documented scandal-sheet public life, and you say to yourself: There had to be more to it than that.

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