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Sympathy for the Devil 

The Crucible reinterpreted

Wednesday, Aug 12 1998
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At a recent performance of his autobiographical comedy routine Other Than My Health I Have Nothing . . . And Today I Don't Feel So Good, Bruce Smirnoff singled me out. "So tell me," he asked, aiming his mike like a shotgun, "how old were you when you first had sex?" Notwithstanding that I was sitting next to my mother and her husband, I was hardly about to reveal such an intimate detail to Mr. Smirnoff, or to the 100 or so strangers who had come to see him. After my polite refusal to answer the question, Smirnoff turned to another fellow, who also took the Fifth.

I hope that Smirnoff - the Kenneth Starr of standup - often meets with such obstinacy on the part of his audience recruits. But I rather doubt it. This is, after all, the Age of Oprah.

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In the civic arena, we have obviously drifted from an era of discretion into one of confession - where the purportedly therapeutic purgative of publicly telling all is confused with the pursuit of some higher truth. Senator Orrin Hatch now suggests that the president of the United States come forward and "pour his heart out" to the American people - "a forgiving people," he notes (witch burnings and the Ku Klux Klan aside) - not about some fund-raising scandal or leak of military technology to China, but about his allegedly having been fellated by a consenting adult intern. If he just fesses up, Hatch continues, "the American people will breathe a sigh of relief." Meanwhile, the European press watches in stunned disbelief. If JFK had been distracted by such nonsense, London's Daily Telegraph remarks, who knows how the Cuban Missile Crisis might have tilted?

Who knows, also, whether Arthur Miller could have imagined such a world when he was writing The Crucible - now presented in a reverent, resounding alfresco staging by Theatricum Botanicum. The theater's press office remarks on the play's pertinence to the McCarthy hearings - the cataclysm that inspired Miller's drama. Today, however, The Crucible carries so many more timely resonances, it makes HUAC seem ancient history indeed.

Miller sets the drama amid the 1692 Salem witch-hunts, using the 17th-century setting to draw a parallel with a more contemporary national aberration: congressional hearings in the early to mid-'50s, which, in the process of rooting out communism (read: pure evil) in the entertainment industry and elsewhere, slammed into the privacy rights and the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people, all in the supposed interest of national security.

Today, however, the play seems more a cautionary tale about our culture of confession, about the point of intersection between private and public information, and how that point has shifted over 50 years. The Crucible now reflects the impulse behind The Jerry Springer Show - the sundry tyrannies and sordid machinations involved in "getting at the truth," mingled with the culturally sanctioned carnival of airing our secrets and exposing our hearts on network TV.

Meanwhile, on a stage in Topanga Canyon, The Crucible's steely Deputy Governor Danforth (Philip Littell) warns his courtroom witness, Mary Warren (Willow Geer-Alsop), a girl quivering in fear, that "the devil lives on confidences." Danforth's court becomes the drama's fulcrum in a showdown between the deputy governor and one John Proctor (Jim Lefave), a salt-of-the- earth farmer trying to protect his saintly wife, Elizabeth (Melora Marshall), from a charge of witchcraft lodged by precocious young Abigail (Abby Craden) - one of a handful of girls who claim that, while cavorting in the woods, they were temporarily possessed by the devil. The children add that, while in the Evil One's power, they were able to spy on a number of still-unrepentant townsfolk also carrying on with Satan. Impelled by the excitement of the attention and power drawn by their spurious confessions, the girls start naming names. In the course of a few frenzied months, neighbors betray each other in court, and many of Salem's most upright citizens wind up dangling from gallows.

There is absolutely no ambiguity about Miller's feelings here. The court is a sham, the crimes are "invisible," while the primary witnesses are "pretenders" - an ignorant and vicious rabble against which honorable and freethinking individuals must contend. (If you cough saying Arthur Miller's name, it may come out Henrik Ibsen; The Crucible is a theme-and-variation on Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, a play Miller had translated three years earlier.)

Miller populates The Crucible with his standard array of villains and heroes and people in between. Frankly, most interesting are the people in between, such as The Reverend John Hale (Milan Dragicevich, offering an intoxicating blend of arrogance and tenderness) - a haughty minister arriving from an outside parish who, despite his terror of Satan, recognizes the children's shenanigans as shenanigans, and becomes Proctor's advocate in the court.

When Miller puts his primary characters on the rack, the emerging quandaries can rattle your bones. When, for instance, young Mary Warren tries to testify that she and her friends have been lying and that their deliriums are performances, Danforth warns her that such an admission could land her a perjury conviction because of her prior testimony. (No "transactional immunity" in this court!) In a devastating spot of acting by Geer-Alsop, the terrified Mary falls apart, literally hurling herself back into the arms of her peers.

Proctor, meanwhile, finds himself in a bind, having had a sexual dalliance with Abigail, the woman who now accuses his wife. In order to convince the court of Abigail's tawdry motive - to replace Elizabeth in his family - he has to admit his adultery.

(Sound familiar?) And remember, this is Salem, 1692. There are brandings and lashings at the other end of such a disclosure.

But Proctor is nothing if not a man of principle. He has already come clean with his wife; now, as she languishes in a jail cell, he comes clean with the court. Soon after, Elizabeth is brought in and asked, under oath, whether she knows of any illicit affair committed by her husband. Marshall's Elizabeth sends out harrowing, desperate glances in Proctor's direction, seeking some clue as to what he's told the court, but Danforth orders him to look away. Elizabeth's dilemma, of course, is that she could send her beloved husband to the stocks with the truth, or perjure herself with a lie.

In these scenes, The Crucible dramatizes a callous intrusion of a public morality upon a private one - an intrusion that is driven home when Proctor is commanded to sign his name to a proclamation of "guilt," to be posted in the town. His sworn "confession" will not suffice. It's not enough that they have his soul. They want his name as well.

Lefave's thunderous portrayal of John Proctor is emblematic of director Ellen Geer's tone. He rubs his hands together with a force that leaves you wondering if there's any flesh left on them after the show. When not striding across the stage, or through the atmospheric woods that surround the playing area (and lend a certain cinematic grandeur to the event), he stands slightly stooped, arms dangling primatelike, bellowing in a basso profundo, a model of self-assurance. This is a character who aims not to please, but to be heard. On an outdoor stage, that's not a bad idea.

I don't know how they manage at night, but at the Saturday matinees God is the lighting designer, and He does a pretty good job. Still, while the foliage sends down some nice shadows, there's not much to be had in the way of focus. Director Geer compensates by funneling our attention through carefully rendered groupings of people on the effective, if uncredited, multitiered set. To much the same end, Geer sets the action on a scale about a size and a half larger than life - a scale to which the entire ensemble rises, resulting in a fervent and unified production, punctuated by the beautiful choral hymns sung by Pilgrims in the surrounding forest - hymns of solace and praise. Meanwhile, afternoon shade darkens the stage, people keep confessing, and no one is set free.

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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