‘Cleave to no faith when faith brings blood’
Bedlam presents a hair-raising, heart-pounding psychological thriller set in our backyard
Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Eric Tucker
Central Square Theater
Sept. 12–Oct. 13
Arthur Miller did not undertake the writing of The Crucible as a mere exercise in historical fiction. In the 1950s, in the midst of the trials of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, he was only too keenly ruminating on certain phenomena of human behavior. Events that make you wonder why no one stepped in, why no one called out the ludicrous and harkened society back to reason. Moments when victims have no rational means to defend themselves and accusers stand only to gain from pointing their fingers.
Director Eric Tucker immerses us into the claustrophobic confines of a little village, not too far from here, where the Salem witch trials took place. And you won’t get to slink away into the anonymity of a quiescent audience member. You’re one of the villagers, but far enough removed that you can observe the hysteria without fearing for your life. Before the play starts, you’re sucked into the small-town atmosphere as the actors stroll through the audience, shaking hands, warmly welcoming you, and asking after your health. Throughout the play, the audience is the ubiquitous “Crowd” that is inevitably present in the town square, in the courtroom, in the bedroom. The actors will make you feel like they are speaking directly to you, making eye contact, and projecting their indignation or vehemence towards you in courtroom speeches and personal appeals.
Very soon, you feel that you know these townspeople. Not only do you know their quirks and their habits, but you feel that they are characters that you’ve met in your own life. You know how many children Ann Putnam has buried, how many times Giles Corey has taken someone to court, and how often John Proctor goes to church. The characters Miller creates (some historical, some fictional) aren’t mouthpieces for his opinions or cardboard cutouts — they’re complex, realistic, flawed, idealistic. But this multifaceted nature of the characters wouldn’t come through if it weren’t buttressed by the nuanced interpretations and forceful performances of the Bedlam actors.
John Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth Proctor (Susannah Millonzi), is a quiet, determined force of nature with ironclad principles and unshakeable loyalty to her husband. When she’s tested in ways she couldn’t have imagined, Millonzi conjures before us a fiery spirit in a frail frame, who inspires strength in us and in her husband in his darkest moments. Her performance is perfectly juxtaposed with Truett Felt’s, who plays a chilling Abigail Williams, the merciless ringleader of this charade. Through a chilled-ice exterior, pixieish Felt is able to shine thin piteous rays of a capricious, heartbroken young girl who is beginning to lose her grip on reality.
Eric Tucker features in the show as Reverend Hale, whose transformation over the course of the play is a study in character development. Hale starts out as the authoritative, charismatic neighbourhood pastor confidently guiding his flock down the path of righteousness. He is familiar and slightly patronizing to everyone he meets, putting his arms around their shoulders, smiling indulgently at their wayward ways, punctiliously whipping out his little spiral bound notebook and pencil. He is unwavering in his belief that he bears his adopted town “gifts of high religion.”
As the pressure and the stakes mount, he begins to stumble and hesitate. His speech slows as the reality of the situation and his role in it dawns upon him. He stumbles back onto the scene in the second act, in mental and physical disarray, keeping himself in body and mind removed from others. His will is wholly focused on one goal: saving as many of those he unwittingly damned as he can. Tucker builds up a portrait of a man who is trying to salvage what he can from a once cohesive, watertight worldview. He is a man of goodwill who realizes he is wrong but who no longer has the power to stop the machine he helped set in motion.
At the same time, as Hale’s conviction starts to waver, that of Deputy Governor Danforth (Joshua Wolf Coleman) ossifies into a steely righteousness. Danforth is a monster, but he wouldn’t be a very scary monster if he weren’t made so believable by Coleman as a well-educated, well-meaning, self-important adjudicator. He wouldn’t evoke such frustration if he didn’t come so close to saving the day. He disappoints precisely because he didn’t have to. Coleman projects the image of a benevolent tyrant who is habituated to wielding authority and influence. He browbeats, cajoles, and shames, his temples throbbing, his temper barely in check, constantly frustrated at the lack of cooperation from his victims.
The plot is meticulously constructed so as to present a series of difficult moral decisions with weighty consequences and no right answer. As director, Tucker gets the pacing just right, allowing each climax a steady rise, a dizzying pause at the top, and a reinless descent into the ensuing bedlam. At each crossroads, you’re left squirming in your seat. What will they do? What would I do? What is the right thing to do?
As John Proctor, Ryan Quinn dissects the nature of this man before us, peeling away layer by layer of the character. At first glance, a simple laborer without strong religious convictions, then a repentant sinner, and finally a man who values his name more than a life without honor. By the end, Quinn has sketched in charcoal the image of a productive, heroic man who loves life and who yearns to live in the most honorable way he can, but is not able to choose life in the face of the destructive nature of his adversaries. Miller’s powerful monologues need an equally spectacular conduit, and they find it in Quinn.
The decisions, dawning realizations, and rationalizations pile on top of each other, heightening the feeling of claustrophobia achieved by the minimalist but effective stage design. The cramped space of the room cut into the wall, the disproportionately small furniture, and the spartan decor amplify the notion of the inhumane and the absurd. In the second half, the cut-out room is hidden with a sheet to create a stark courtroom with microphones and setup reminiscent of the McCarthy era. Lamps wielded in an exaggeratedly interrogatory manner were used to great effect for enhancing the association and inserting wedges of humor even in dark moments.
The only ungainly moments in the production were the transitions between scenes. Pregnant pauses with solitary characters on stage were a bit awkward, making one expect a blackout or a monologue, neither of which were forthcoming. There were a couple gestures that may have been symbolic but their ambiguity distracted from rather than added to the play. One scene began in so incomprehensible and drawn-out a manner that I had no idea what was going on. It seems to have been Danforth’s dream, but apart from demonstrating that the events of the play were entering his subconscious, I do not see what purpose it served.
The Crucible is a poignant reminder that the villains are not only those who yell the loudest, but those who bestow their sanction on the accusers. Despite the deeply moving nature of the play and its reflections on the cyclic nature of history, the Miller/Tucker duo penetrate the gloom with blazing streaks of humor and uplifting odes to the heroism of man. Bedlam makes this play shine through its thoughtful, textured realization of the characters, its sustained suspense as the plot unfurls, and its intimate engagement with the audience.