Arthur Miller’s classic work of modernist drama, “The Crucible,” has been in vogue of late, thanks to its resonance with what many people (especially those in the theatrical community) view as the resurgence of an oppressive, authoritative theocracy in our country. This renewed interest has certainly been true in Austin. Earlier this fall, Austin Shakespeare produced a staged reading of the play, and now the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Theatre & Dance has mounted a full production, running through Nov. 19 at the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre on the UT campus.
“The Crucible,” a re-creation of the infamous Salem witch trials of the late 1600s, has long been associated with the McCarthy hearings and attendant Red Scare of the 1950s, viewed as an allegory for Miller’s feelings about those who “named names” in order to escape persecution. Indeed, “The Crucible” is often seen as the ultimate expression of Miller’s modernist sensibility of absolute rights and wrongs, embodied by fierce moral standards and righteousness.
Though it’s easy to see why such an absolutist statement appeals in today’s world of “alternate facts” and “fake news,” some aspects of Miller’s work don’t age as well. The play’s vicious condemnation of the young girls accusing their neighbors of witchcraft reads as dangerously dismissive of women’s voices in a time where we’re only beginning to get the full grasp of just how much sexual abuse that kind of dismissal has allowed for over time. When we realize that the play’s moral center is a grown man who has had an affair with a teenage girl, we begin to see that Miller’s gender politics are problematic, to say the least.
To the credit of co-directors Michael Fry, Robert Ramirez and Jess Shoemaker, the production attempts to avert some of these problems by gender-swapping a few of the characters, casting females in the roles of Reverend Hale and Judge Hathorne. Unfortunately, these changes don’t quite work in a play where gender is such a crucial part of the text and subtext. Kat Lozano gives one of the play’s strongest performances as Reverend Hale, but the open acceptance of a female reverend in 1692 colonial Massachusetts stretches the suspension of disbelief a bit far.
These issues aside, this is a solid production of Miller’s text, one that highlights an array of talented student performers alongside guest artist and acclaimed voice actor Luke Daniels as a wonderfully frightening and infuriating Deputy Governor Danforth. Particular standouts, in addition to Lozano and Daniels, include Audrey Gerthoffer’s connivingly wicked Abigail Williams, Nyles Washington’s fiercely resistant and persistent John Proctor, and Rama Tcheunte’s quietly dignified Elizabeth Proctor (who, to this critic, shines as the play’s true moral core). Some of the play’s stronger moments are the scenes of intimacy between the Proctors, which are then wonderfully counterpoised by the loud, surrealist clamor of the trial scene.
Whatever one thinks of the politics of “The Crucible,” it has become a classic of the American stage because it works as a good, solid (if somewhat lengthy) drama. UT Theatre and Dance’s production of the play brings out the show’s strengths while eliding its flaws, creating a powerful venue for many of the department’s students to highlight their great talents.