In spite of the fights, verbal outbursts, and cries of anguish that punctuate The Crucible, Arthur Miller's play remains essentially intelligent and serious, never exciting or theatrical. Written during the height of the McCarthy era, just after HUAC's infamous investigation of Hollywood, Miller's saga of kill-crazy colonial Salem was unmistakably allegorical, its theme chillingly contemporary.
The reactions of the townspeople, falsely accused of witchcraft by Abigail, the depraved 18-year-old, closely parallel the response to the "Are you now or have you ever been...?" of the HUAC hearings. When, John Proctor, the play's hero, agrees to confess his own sins but refuses to "name names," he is repeating Lillian Hellman's stand before the Committee; The Crucible is a textbook of such reactions.
Under Robert Finch's direction, an obviously dedicated cast makes The Crucible superior to most House productions. It shares many of the common faults of House shows: the props are conspicuously modern, the written affidavits invariably blank sheets of typing paper; Reverend Hale enters the Paris house with an armload of books fresh from Widener Library with the little white stickers on the bindings to prove it.
Finch's direction is simple to the point of being unimaginative. When a character has a line, he walks up to the person he's addressing, speaks the line, and moves back to wherever he was standing. The characters who aren't speaking are given little or nothing to do while waiting for their lines, and at its worst, the production becomes a series of stage tableaux: two people talk downstage, and everyone else stands stiffly in the background. He makes an attempt at historical accuracy by having Abigail and her teen-age cronies enter the courtroom knitting (because good girls kept themselves busy in those days), but it creates entirely the wrong mood, because we associate it with the French Revolution and old ladies happily knitting in the grandstands watching the guillotine chop off heads.
But Finch's tight professional pacing, particularly of the dialogue, make The Crucible an impressive show. Its three-and-a-quarter hour running time seems much closer to two, and for a student production, that's no small achievement.
The female leads in The Crucible give the best performances. If Susan Baldwin has done any previous acting here, I'm extremely sorry to have missed it. As Elizabeth Proctor, she is properly reserved and stoical at first, truly moving in the final scenes. Her performance is direct and unself-conscious, the only fully realized characterization in the show. Ann Thompson's Abigail is not far behind. As the girl responsible for the persecution, she controls her voice and body carefuly, conveying perfectly Abigail's mental instability, without overstatement. As a result, her performance is never predictable, her hysterical fits and moodiness convincing. Libby Franck has perhaps the hardest part, that of Mary Warren, the Proctors' impressionable housekeeper; she pulls it off neatly, particularly at the end of the second act, when Proctor forces her to confess her part in the fraud.
Miller was more concerned with theme than with characterization, and most of the male roles read like emblems or attitudes rather than people. As a result, an actor must add character through gesture or vocal power where the script doesn't supply it. Finch's male actors aren't good enough; all of them give unmodulated one-note performances. If an actor happens to hit the right note, as in the case of Tim Hall's paranoid Danforth, the performance can be extremely effective. But in the first two acts, Steve Hill as the nasty Reverend Parris and John Brady as the humane Reverend Hale might just as well be playing each other's parts, or David Blocker's part as Putnam, for all the difference between them. Brady has several good moments later in the play, but most of them when he isn't talking. Only Vernon Blackman manages to convey something over and above Miller's emblematic fall-guy.
Alan Symonds has designed lights for two other shows that have opened within the last seven days. It may seem like a lot for one man to handle, but then, he can do that sort of thing because he's good at it. His fourth act lighting sets the mood so perfectly, one hardly needs the first five minutes of dialogue. Bruce West's set--a stylized house frame--is handsome and functional, as good a simple set as I've seen in a House show.
The Crucible marks the debut of the Dudley House Drama Society. It is flawed and uneven, but on the whole, Finch and his determined cast have put on a solid straightforward production of a good play.