Young Mary Warren trembles with fear when she must choose between lying or telling the truth. As portrayed by an electrifying Isabelle Herringer in the Durango High School production of “The Crucible,” Mary’s public indecision is excruciating. Herringer’s quaking limbs, darting eye and convulsive movements make Mary’s fear manifest.
The actor’s performance is one of many that collectively deliver a picture of toxic stress – so apparent in young Americans these days.
Arthur Miller’s classic 1953 play, “The Crucible,” is about a Puritan community under siege in 1692. In an imaginative production under the direction of Ben Mattson, performances will continue through Sunday.
Miller’s drama about social chaos, moral confusion and personal conscience is as pertinent today as it was in the corrosive McCarthy Era, a time of national fear and scapegoating. The “struggle of staying grounded,” as Mattson writes in a thoughtful program note, in a poisonous political environment is as relevant today as 226 years ago. This is not a family show, as Mattson has made abundantly clear: This is a show with mature themes, subject matter and language.
Credit Mattson, set designer Mara Morrissey and a terrific construction crew for a sophisticated, minimalist set. Bare trees flank a rough, wooden-lattice screen that serves as a backdrop for various farmhouse settings and a town hall. Cellist Caroline McClung sits behind the screen playing furtively to underscore the dramatic tension. A spare, wooden cross blends into the framework as this strict Puritan community judges and condemns citizens to death on suspicion of consorting with the Devil.
Opening with village girls running among the trees, the play unspools swiftly as rumors of Devil worship spread. Mattson sets a fast, almost metronomic pace, not unlike the speedy pulse of last year’s “Streetcar Named Desire.”
Mattson stays true to the compressed academic script, trimmed from Miller’s original four-act structure to a two-act, 140-minute version. Lines and characters have been cut.
On opening night, the players plunged immediately into the action. From the beginning, there’s a sense of urgency. When The Rev. Samuel Parris (a solid Devin Daley) bemoans his daughter Betty’s sudden collapse (a convincingly frail Laura Clark), rumors of witchcraft quickly spread. Consumed with anxiety, parents and villagers seek answers. Frenzy mounts, and confusion leads to explosive emotional confrontations.
A caution: There are significant projection problems that have to do with pace and projection. In addition, the wide-angle auditorium has never been known for good acoustics.
On opening weekend, the combination of rapid-fire dialogue and uneven vocal production resulted in partial or whole scenes becoming a blur. On occasion, a player will step forward and project clearly. But too often, there’s a tradeoff – urgency over clarity. It can be fixed, but it’s a high demand for high school actors. Amplifying performers may be required for more than musicals.
That said, the overall production is imaginative and intense. Aisle entrances engage the audience and one noisy trial scene even begins in the lobby before the citizens rush to the stage to complete the scene.
Credit Mattson for a sophisticated production overall and a solid cast beginning with Egan Lindsay (John Proctor), Siena Widen (Abigail Williams), Brooke Mazur (Elizabeth Proctor), Luke Nicholson (The Rev. John Hale), Sierra Kelly (Rebecca Nurse) and Braden Evans (Deputy Gov. Danforth). Even with a cast of 30, there are no weak links.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theater Critics Association.