Monday, June 6, 2011

McDermott on "The Crucible"

Not a photo from The Crucible

Witch Hunting Is Topic Subject of Powerful Drama at Play House
By William F. McDermott
The Plain Dealer, Wednesday, October 7, 1954

The Play House last evening opened its Euclid-77th Street theater with Arthur Miller’s drama, "The Crucible". It is a strong, arresting, powerful plot and the Play House people rise to the opportunity it presents and overcome the difficulties it offers.

Some critics in New York and Europe have said that the play too impersonal and lacking in sharpness of struggle between individuals. I do not agree. It is a story about mass hysteria and necessarily its characters must be numerous and its action diffuse. But within the pattern of his design Mr. Miller has composed a sound and moving play.

The characters are sometimes scantily sketched, but there can be no denial that the principals among them are thoroughly well drawn and that the entire movement of the play is genuinely and excitingly dramatic.

It is difficult to believe that such things as Mr. Miller depicts actually happened in America, but, shocking as they are, they did happen. You can not escape the imitation of the author that something of the same sort is still happening in the world. He does not press the point, but you can sense the underlying suggestion.

Witch Hunts

"Crucible" is a dramatization of the witch hunts of Salem in 1692. This terror lasted for only a few years but produced cruelties and shames which have left lasting scars. These savageries were inflicted in the name of government and God.

Mr. Miller shows his skill as a dramatist in evoking the spell of fear and superstition which overcame a community and led it to commit shocking wrongs. He makes these wrongs more terrible and more real by showing their effect through the medium of ordinary and recognizable human beings. His canvas is broad, but his details are clear.

Innocent women were brought to trial and hanged for witchcraft on flimsy charges created by the imagination of children, or the vengfulness of enemies, all amid pious speeches and the solemn dignity of self-assured and dogmatic judges. This is Mr. Miller’s material and he makes the most effective use of it.

The cast is large and admirably directed by Frederic McConnell, who could not have found the task an easy one. It is one of the most forceful, best-disciplined performances of a difficult play that I have seen at the Play House for a long time.

Well Acted

Kirk Willis is excellent as young John Proctor who has the courage to stand up against the overwhelming forces of fear and superstition ranged against him. In this role, he conveys quiet strength, unquenchable integrity, a sense of justice and a willingness to sacrifice his life for what he believes to be honesty and goodness.

As his wife, Elizabeth, Eve Arden gives a sensitive portrayal of an outwardly cold woman who possesses an inner warmth of feeling and is more than normally forgiving. These two characters are fully developed by the dramatist and completely articulated by the players.

There are many other notable performances. June Squibb, as Abigail, is in key with the role at all times. Ella Apple has some fine moments as Tituba. Robert Allman, as Giles, hovers like a wraith around the fringes of the evening, and is altogether successful. Helen Watkins plays Rebecca Nurse with a moving reality and a touch of pathos.

Rolf Engelhardt is brisk and sure in the important role of the Rev. John Hale, and Max Ellis gives force and a forbidding genuineness to another minister of the gospel, the Rev. Samuel Parris. Some of the younger and less experienced people in the cast carry off their tasks with the skill and understanding of veterans. All honors are due to everybody concerned in the performance, including William McCreary who designed the simple and appropriate settings.

The play is not a pleasant one. But the time and place with which it deals were not pleasant. I found it an exciting and provocative drama.

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