Erin Shea Brady is a contributing writer and critic at PerformInk and Newcity Stage. Directing credits include: Everybody (Brown Paper Box Co.) and Cabaret, Annapurna (staged reading) and The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (No Stakes Theater Project). Erin has assistant directed and dramaturged productions at the Goodman, Jackalope, TimeLine, A Red Orchid, Northlight, and Remy Bumppo. Erin is a graduate of the directing program at Columbia College Chicago, the internship program at Steppenwolf, Jackalope's inaugural Playwright's Lab, and participated in the Goodman's Criticism in a Changing America bootcamp. Erin is a company member with Brown Paper Box Co. and is currently pursuing her MSW at Loyola.
Pictured: The ensemble of THE CRUCIBLE. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
By Erin Shea Brady
When I see a play like THE CRUCIBLE slated in a theater season, I have to wonder why. Arthur Miller’s classic allegory is certainly timeless, but often-produced. What makes this production different from any other? What relevant conversation is this group of people trying to have at this moment with this work? Our artistic community is searching for ways to respond to and engage with our volatile political climate. In short, we’re seeing a lot of “now more than ever” plays, some more successful than others.
It’s easy to rest on “now more than ever,” and, in my own work, I’ve learned that a strong correlation between past and present doesn’t always speak for itself. We can’t just make a play with a resonant theme and expect to engage our audience. In Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ production of THE CRUCIBLE, I was grateful to see that Jonathan Berry’s deliberate work is a striking example of “now more than ever” done well.
As audiences grow more and more used to the “tight 90-minute” theater-going experience, 2 hours and 45 minutes becomes an exponentially daunting runtime. Steppenwolf’s production moves remarkably well. This is a formidable cast. Some are able to effectively communicate Miller’s heightened language with more ease than others (Michael Patrick Thornton, Kristina Valada-Viars and Echaka Agba are standouts in this regard) but overall, the ensemble does good work. The most notable collaboration, however, is that of director Berry and scenic designer Arnel Sancianco.
The genius of Berry’s collaboration with Sancianco is in our ability to see the blatant unbalance of power. It is immediately made clear that this is a world where religious, white men are the decision-makers and the echo-chambers. While Reverend Hale (a complex performance by Erik Hellman), Reverend Parris (Peter Moore) and grudge-holding Thomas Putnam (Philip Winston) are elevated center stage, engaged in an argument based on ego and bias, we see the women and people of color whose fates they determine, sitting on the sidelines, outnumbering them but forced to stay silent. Indirectly, Berry’s staging evokes the now-famous photo of Donald Trump signing an anti-abortion executive order surrounded only by men. The “now more than ever” comes in strong.
Throughout the play’s exploration of privilege and religious reverberation, the stage becomes a character in its own right and its transformation is breathtaking. The world that Sancianco has built aptly tracks how a provincial mindset can have devastating, widespread consequences.
At first glance, and in less capable hands, THE CRUCIBLE could be seen as problematic from a feminist perspective. If too much focus is given to the love triangle between Abigail Williams, John Proctor and Elizabeth Proctor, a production might perpetuate a glorified “catfight” narrative, or lightly imply that women will manipulate and literally hang one another in pursuit of power. But in Berry’s thoughtful production, we see women represented as complex individuals with their own biases and their own agendas. We see men, even those who mean well, as products of a patriarchal society. The play does not preach that one sex is universally more or less trustworthy – there’s no pitting of one group against the other. Instead, we see the desperation that is fostered in narrow-mindedness, when power is distributed so unequally and only few unchallenged voices are heard. The horrifying reality of systemic oppression and its effect on ALL parties rings pure and clear.
While I’m still not convinced that THE CRUCIBLE needs to be produced as often as it is, Berry earns his production. In his hands, Miller’s thoughtful, terrifying allegory proves haunting, relevant, and timely.
THE CRUCIBLE runs through October 21st. For more information visit steppenwolf.org.