Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Crucible by Arthur Miller, Mary Moody Northen Theatre, St. Edward's University, February 16 - 26

by Michael Meigs

One measure of the power of Arthur Miller's drama about the Salem witch trials of 1692 is the startling transformation of familiar actors. Tiny Sophia Franzella, now a junior at St. Edward's, has charmed audiences with her wildly comic and mischievous personae in The Imaginary Invalid, Urinetown and A Year with Frog and Toad. Here, as the malicious and vindictive accuser Abigail Williams, Franzella is smooth faced duplicity, a murderous woman-child driven by spite and lust. Hers is a finely understated performance, one that makes her all the more hair-raising because of her almost silent conviction and the restraint of her lust for her former employer John Proctor.

David Stahl, an Equity regular at Austin Playhouse, has acquitted himself of a wide range of characters in Austin theatre but those which remain most vivid in memory, for better or worse, are clowns -- the unnamed all-purpose player in The 39 Steps, the hypochondriac in Laughter on the 23rd Floor, the old actor Henry in The Fantasticks, and Sagot, the prancing rouge-cheeked art dealer in Picasso at the Lapin Agile. Director Michelle Polgar recruited Stahl for the role of Deputy Governor Danforth, the chief inquisitor who entirely dominates the second half of The Crucible. Stahl is nothing less than terrifying, with his baleful stare, self certainty and the immense self regard of a small man in a position that surpasses his capacities.

Arthur Miller studied the historical records of the Salem witch trials, but he wrote this 1953 piece principally as an indictment of the obsessive Communist hunting led by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (a body that three years later convicted Miller of contempt of Congress for his refusal to furnish names during a hearing). The witch hunt metaphor stuck like pitch to the investigators and did a great deal to turn public sentiment against them.

Ironically, the meaning of the play's title remains obscure for many -- so much so that the student calling from the Mary Moody Theatre box office was asking whether I wanted to make an early reservation for "the curcible." A crucible is a bowl or other recipient capable of withstanding high temperatures. Miller's title is drawn from the technology of smelting -- melting and then shaping ingots from white-hot metal. It's an inexact metaphor for the content of the play, for the hysterical and then judicial processes described in the work are not transformational but, rather, purely destructive.

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