Salem is a state of mind in Hart House Theatre’s The Crucible

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Joanna Decc as Mercy Lewis, Abigail Craven as Betty Parris, Courtney Lamanna as Abigail Williams, back: Nina Rose Taylor as Mary Warren (photo: Scott Gorman)

Travelling to Salem, Massachusetts (where The Crucible is set) is a bit like journeying back to the year 1692. Not just because this small town never got rid of its supernatural mythos—but because the town retains an affection for (and features a bustling tourist industry centered on) the infamous “witch trials” of that year. About 200 people (mostly women) were executed in the trials, which continue to captivate the popular imagination some 300 years later.

In 1953, Arthur Miller’s Tony-Award-winning play The Crucible resurrected the trials as an allegory for the paranoia of the McCarthy “Red Scare” in the 1950s – dubbed a “witch hunt” for its zealous pursuit and life-destroying punishment of unsubstantiated accusations of Communism. With the rise of Donald Trump, Director Michael Rubenstein has reimagined Arthur Miller‘s The Crucible in a timely production at Hart House Theatre that again puts the horror of mass hysteria and mistrust on full display.

In Hart House Theatre’s production, Jon Berrie assumes the role of protagonist John Proctor, a Salem farmer and venerable member of the community falsely accused of witchcraft by the spurned Abigail Williams, portrayed by Courtney Lamanna. “During the course of action of the play, [Proctor] is grappling with an unshakable sense of shame from having had an affair with his former servant, Abigail,” explains Mr Berrie. “Amidst the chaos of the witch trials, his wife, Elizabeth (Melissa Taylor), is convicted by Abigail of witchcraft, forcing him to put his reputation at risk in order to prove her innocence before the court.”

Abigail and Proctor are pitted against one another, but in 2018, it is not so simple to determine which is the hero and which the villain. Certainly, Abigail’s cunning sets in motion the false accusations of witchcraft that throw the entire community into chaos. “In approaching the role, I have definitely explored the depths of [Abigail’s] callousness and brutality,” Ms Lamanna admits, “but I also hope to expose her humanity.” Though her “capacity for cruelty is undeniable,” Abigail is a teenage girl chasing the one person who has ever shown her love, “and that’s something I think all audiences can relate to on some level.”

Melissa Taylor as Elizabeth Proctor, Jon Berrie as John Proctor (photo: Scott Gorman)

At the same time, Mr Berrie describes Proctor the nominal hero as “an animalistic, beast of a man with a strong set of personal convictions and principles who, if challenged, is not afraid to express himself in giant outbursts of rage.” These convictions and principles – and his ability to voice them – are Proctor’s great strength. But in Mr Berrie’s view, there is no escaping Proctor’s deep flaws: “he is physically abusive and is an adulterer.” Happily for him, in 1692 Salem, his gender and social standing give him clout that Abigail – an unmarried servant without wealth or husband – lacks. (The contrast between Ms Lamanna’s petite physique and Mr Berrie’s tall stature underscores this power imbalance.)

In such a society, it must be asked what choice an Abigail has but to leverage her wiles to get what she wants. “While Abigail functions as the antagonist in John’s narrative, I don’t believe that she’s really the bad guy in this story,” Ms Lamanna offers. “The play examines a patriarchal religious system that maintains control of the community by pitting people (women, specifically) against each other.” While Abigail commits unprincipled acts throughout the show, she is largely motivated by desperate self-preservation when “she finds herself cornered by an insane, fear-driven system.” Like Ms Lamanna, Mr. Berrie is sensitive to the status of women when the play was written, and its setting at a time “when it was far, far worse.” This leads him to wonder, “how both women and men of our era feel about [Proctor], and if his heroism stands the test of time. Also, how is Abigail, the play’s antagonist perceived? Can people better empathize now, especially given the degree of vulnerability and multidimensionality Courtney brings to her role?”

Despite their opposition, Ms Lamanna views John and Abigail as combatting the same irrational system in different ways: “They are both wise to the hypocrisy of the society they live in, and they are both fighting on the side of reason” – though from different motivations and with different consequences. “When certain core truths of our humanity are denied, mass hysteria can fill the void,” notes Mr Berrie – and the sobering fact is that certain core truths are being quietly denied in the society of the start of the play . . .while others come to be loudly denied once Abigail sets the plot in motion with her lies.

Jon Berrie as John Proctor, Nina Rose Taylor as Mary Warren, David John Phillips as Danforth, Thomas Gough as Giles Corey (photo: Scott Gorman)

Is The Crucible is still relevant in 2018? Ms Lamanna and Mr Berrie assert that it is — indeed, now more than ever. Mr Berrie pinpoints the dangers of hysteria, rigidity of belief and concern over reputation as particularly topical. The imagery, propulsive music and ensemble movements of the production highlight themes of social policing and fear mongering that ring true in 2018. All of the actors remain on stage throughout the performance. When not part of the principal action, they are a collective presence, lurking Big Brother-like within Chris Penna’s atmospheric set, and creeping out of the shadows without warning. Mr Berrie draws specific parallels between the society of the play and ours, observing that in both, reputations are vulnerable in a climate of fear. The characters’ constant presence invokes the overexposure and desperate need for public approval that characterize social media. “We are obsessed with our social-media reputations,” offers Mr Berrie. “When paranoia pervades, an error in judgement can lead to a public-reputation ‘execution’.” Like us, these characters are plagued by what their neighbours think. The only difference is that in the Salem of the witch trials, their physical lives, as well as their reputations, rest on that verdict.

This production gets into your head. The dialogue is intense, cramped and fast. The lighting and sound design (by C.J. Astronomo and Jeremy Hutton, respectively) create a taut tension that becomes full-on, claustrophobic, look-over-your shoulder fear. It feels like a set of runaway events careening out of control towards disaster. In Ms Lamanna’s assessment, this production’s “uniquely visceral” quality, along with its “heightened theatricality” give a “fresh voice to themes of the play,” while situating them within the universal.

For the Salem of the witch trials is as much a state of mind as a place: “this play will always be relevant because we know, of course, that history repeats itself,” Ms Lamanna maintains. “The fact that this story is based on real-life events seems staggering and almost impossible to us today, but of course we can see echoes of similar dynamics in our own society. We are currently witnessing a political climate that is being driven into chaos by fear-mongering and divisiveness– and which will undoubtedly seem completely unbelievable to audiences who reflect back on it 300 years from now.”

In this context, Mr Berrie offers a final plea for the compelling and unsettling Hart House Theatre production: “I can only hope to move people and perhaps provide some sort of cause for deeper, personal reflection.”

Speaking for myself and my husband, Mr. Berrie, mission accomplished.

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Courtney Lamanna as Abigail Williams, Abigail Craven as Betty Parris (photo: Scott Gorman)

What: The Crucible by Arthur Miller; Directed by Michael Rubenstein
Featuring Jon Berrie (John Proctor), Anthony Botelho (Reverend Parris), Abigail Craven (Betty Parris), Joanna Decc (Mercy Lewis), Thomas Gough (Giles Corey), Tomas Ketchum (Thomas Putnam), Courtney Lamanna (Abigail Williams), Allyson Landy (Ann Putnam), Charlin MacIssac (Suzanna Walcott), Brandon Nicoletti (Ezekiel Cheever / Marshall Herrick), David John Phillips (Deputy Governor Danforth), Tom Anthony Quinn (Francis Nurse), Nicholas Koy Santillo (Reverend John Hale), Melissa Taylor (Elizabeth Proctor), Nina Rose Taylor (Mary Warren), Magda Uculmana-Falcon (Tituba), Marilyn Willock (Rebecca Nurse)

Who: Audiences 13 years of age and older

When: On stage until February 3, 2018; running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission

Where: Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle, Toronto, ON M5S 3H3

Info and Tickets: HartHouse.ca

© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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