American Meltdown: A Timely Reprise of THE CRUCIBLE, at PlayMakers Rep


Who’s lying now? The Ensemble in Court in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. October 19-November 6, 2016. Directed by Desdemona Chiang. Photo: Jon Gardiner.


PlayMakers Repertory Company could not have made a more apt choice for this #nastywoman voting season than Arthur Miller’s great play, The Crucible. Miller wrote it during the superheated “Red scare” days of the early 1950s, when the demagogue run amok was Joseph McCarthy, holding his “witch trials” in the House Un-American Activities Committee, but Miller cannily placed his story of fear and honor, manipulation and control, in the Salem, Massachusetts of 1692, demonstrating that mass hysteria and the totalitarian requirement to conform have been part of American life since its earliest years. Miller makes distinct parallels between the HUAC hearings, which ruined many lives, and the deadly witch trials of rigidly Puritan Salem, during which neighbor turned on neighbor, and dozens, mostly women, were sentenced to hang. False witness was taken as the truth. Yes, “Hang the bitch!” echoes all the way back to the 17th century: this play speaks as well to this moment in America as it did to the America of 1953, when it was first produced.


The Ensemble a few minutes later in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Lies breed chaos: Chaos is the enemy of Justice, although the Law made feed on it.  Photo: Jon Gardiner.


Miller also, brilliantly, changed focus repeatedly throughout the play, moving back and forth from the larger social picture to the intimacy of a marriage, and examining the damage done in both by rigid social expectations, lies and betrayals–and, with an even sharper pen, probing the actualities of honor, loyalty and freedom. With each new angle, and each turn of the screw, The Crucible becomes more soul-chilling.


SARITA OCÓN as Elizabeth Proctor in PRC’s 2016 production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Guest director Desdemona Chiang has this complex four-act with its huge cast well in hand, and keeps it moving at a pace that ensures an ever-heightening sense of danger. To emphasize the heated crucible (or cauldron?) in which the story swirls, she has placed the audience on all four sides of the stage, rather than using the U-shaped thrust configuration of the Paul Green Theater. Visually and emotionally this works very well; however, that change changed the acoustics of the room, and made mush out of some of the dialogue, especially in the first two acts. After intermission, at the beginning of the third act, the wooden ceiling which has been hovering oppressively over the stage is lowered, slowly, with much creaking and clanking to become the floor of the courtroom. I found this a little self-consciously theatrical, and its symbology a little too broad-brush, but the sound quality in the room was much better after the ceiling came down.


CHRISTINE MIRZAYAN as Mary Warren and ALEX GIVENS as Marshal Herrick in PRC’s production of The Crucible. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

If you had to reduce the message of this play to one phrase, it would be to “choose death before dishonor.” But Miller, Chiang and the cast all have sympathy for the hard truth that our very cells cry out to live, and few souls can remain pure when their bodies fear for their lives. Kathryn Hunter-Williams of PRC gives an extraordinary performance as Rebecca Nurse, the only one of the community who doesn’t even consider condemning her immortal soul by a false “confession” that would save her mortal body from the gallows. First year MFA student Christine Mirzayan does a fine job with the young woman Mary Warren, whose moral core is undeveloped, and who keeps changing her testimony in a desperate attempt to save herself and her friends, fueling the very evil she seeks to evade.

It is a great pleasure to see so many of PRC’s members on stage together, all doing excellent work. Along with Kathryn Hunter-Williams, Ray Dooley, as the pugnacious Giles Corey; David Adamson as the bewildered Francis Nurse; Julia Gibson in two roles; and Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Deputy Governor Danforth, all render powerful, vivid characterizations. This is one of Cornell’s best performances. They are joined by students ranging from undergraduates to third year MFA candidates in the Professional Actor Training Program, of whom Allison Altman, as the vengeful, trouble-causing Abigail Williams, and Schuyler Scott Mastain, as the ineffectual Rev. John Hale, stand out.


ARIEL SHAFIR as John Proctor and SARITA OCÓN as Elizabeth Proctor in PRC’s production of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Photo: Jon Gardiner.


But guest artists Ariel Shafir and Sarita Ocón as John and Elizabeth Proctor put the fire under this crucible. John broke the Commandment on adultery and his marriage vows, betraying his wife (sick for so long after the last baby) with the beautiful, self-serving Abigail, but although he recognizes the error of his ways, neither woman can quite believe him. Abigail thinks a roll in the hay was a promise to her; Elizabeth inspects his every utterance for traces of new lies. But when the forces of the state and church together attempt to turn John and Elizabeth on each other, they will not be turned, except back toward each other, for precious moments. John almost chooses life with Elizabeth, but cannot bring himself to break the Commandment against bearing false witness, which would dishonor the name his sons carry forward. Elizabeth cannot dishonor his honorableness or her own as a “covenanted Christian woman” with a lie that could save them. Shafir and Ocón make all this pain and struggle piercingly believable. This is very fine acting, subtle, well-vocalized, and free of histrionics, and their intimate battle and detente, as the Proctors, bring the meaning of the larger story into terrifying focus. The Proctors’ sacrifice of their lives, as Miller makes clear, is not only for their own honor, but for the life and honor of their community and country.

The Crucible continues at PlayMakers Repertory Company through Nov. 6. Tickets at or 919-962-7529.


ARIEL SHAFIR as John Proctor and SCHUYLER SCOTT MASTAIN as Reverend Hale in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. October 19-November 6, 2016. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

The Long Way Home: 4000 MILES, at PlayMakers

Dee Maaske as Vera and Schuyler Scott Mastain as Leo, Amy Herzog's 4000 MILES, at PlayMakers. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PlayMakers Repertory Company.

Dee Maaske as Vera, and Schuyler Scott Mastain as Leo, in Amy Herzog’s 4000 MILES, at PlayMakers through April 19. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PlayMakers Repertory Company.

PlayMakers Repertory Company‘s final Mainstage production this season is Amy Herzog‘s smart, feel-good play, 4000 Miles. Like an intimate Vuillard interior with figures, it settles easily around the viewer, offering acute psychology and generous humanity along with the patterned carpets and plump cushions, to those who can give themselves over to its dense, fine-stroke construction. For those who can’t, it’s still a nice picture.

Vera’s a feisty 90-ish Manhattanite, widowed, plowing ahead with life despite increasing frailty and forgetfulness. She’s an old Lefty in a very nice rent-controlled apartment. Leo’s a young man having a hard time growing up, and he’s in the midst of his first encounter with big grief. Having cycled from Seattle, he turns up at Grandmother Vera’s with his bike and his pack in the wee hours as the play opens; soon it becomes clear that they haven’t seen each other for years, and don’t know each other well at all.

Obviously, this set-up could easily turn to sap, or founder in the sit-com shallows. But between Herzog’s nuanced character development and gentle humor, and Desdemona Chiang’s really lovely direction, with its luxurious pace and naturalistic emotional build, PRC’s 4000 Miles consoles the heart while satisfying the mind. Schuyler Scott Mastain gives an authentic performance as Leo, taking him from childish, loutish, baffled with love, lust and sorrow and wounded pride, to a man who can step up to what needs to be done. Leo’s transition to manhood is full of jerks and twists, but Mastain’s performance is smooth and unshowy, even when dealing with his (ex)girlfriend (Arielle Yoder as Bec) and his would-be hot date (Sehee Lee as Amanda).

But it’s Dee Maaske, as Vera, who gives the substance to the production. It’s a fine thing to watch class after class of talented, good-looking young MFA students learning their craft at PlayMakers as the seasons come and go, but to see an actor who’s honed and polished her craft over decades on the stage takes pleasure to another level. It’s also wonderful for an old woman to be a main character. Vera contains elements of the Crone, and the Wise Woman, but her complicated humanity is not subsumed in those simplistic types, and Maaske makes her vividly alive. Time and grief have resigned Vera to many things, but not to being seen without her teeth, and not to any kind of dependence since her husband’s death. But without knowing it, she’s let her strength form a shell around her. Leo’s bumptious presence cracks her rigidity, and together they experience family intimacy again, fueling each other for the next bit of hard road. Herzog, Chiang and Maaske give us a beautiful portrait of a woman in her latter years–venerable, but sometimes laughable. Maaske’s performance as Vera is one of the subtlest seen on the PRC stage in recent memory.

The designers have also excelled. Jan Chambers attractive set–like the aforementioned Vuillard paintings–provides detailed information about its occupants, and her costuming further explicates the characters moving under Xavier Pierce’s purposefully quotidian lighting. Robert Dagit’s pleasing sound design heightens the drama just enough to keep us remembering that this is a play, without stealing the fun of feeling that we are peeking familiarly into private lives.

The April 4 opening of 4000 Miles also saw the final Mainstage curtain speech from Joseph Haj, the PRC producing artistic director for the last nine seasons. Haj got a little emotional as he spoke of his forthcoming departure for the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, and his time at PlayMakers. “I earned my [Actors’ Equity] union card in this very room, a hundred years ago,” he said, referring to his time as an MFA student in the Professional Actor Training Program. When Haj took over the leadership of PlayMakers, it was at the lowest point of its history. With artistic courage, uncautious energy, considerable charm and smooth diplomacy, Haj has made the PRC into a powerhouse producer of new work as well as classic drama and musical theater. “I’m so grateful to be a part of that story,” he said. Back at you, Joe. Thanks for being here.

Associate artistic director Jeff Meanza will also be departing for the Twin Cities, leaving all the space at the top to be filled by fresh artistic leadership.  According to PRC managing director Michele Weathers, the search for Haj’s replacement has not yet begun, and his position may take a year or more to fill. Weathers will be guiding the ship in the meantime, and all the staff will carry on with the already-scheduled 2015-2016 season, the last one stamped “Joe Haj.”

The final production of this season will take place in the small Kenan Theater, when PRC² presents Mary’s Wedding, April 29-May 3.

Dee Maaske as Vera and Schuyler Scott Mastain as Leo. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

Dee Maaske as Vera, and Schuyler Scott Mastain as Leo, in PRC’s current production of Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles.    Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

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