★★★½☆ - Satisfying
Nevada Conservatory Theatre's ambitious presentation of "The Crucible" is a powder keg of raw emotion, with powerful performances and a post-apocalyptic setting that gives an abstract interpretation of Arthur Miller's timeless 1953 play. Based on the historical 1692 witch hunt, trials, and executions of those falsely accused in the Puritan community of Salem, Massachusetts, Miller wrote the piece as an allegory for McCarthyism. His insights into the all-too-human penchant for mass hysteria, brought on by projection and irrational fear, speaks volumes to the different world views that divide us as a nation today. It's a show about the battle of dualities--religion vs. secularism, conformity vs. freedom, falsehood vs. truth, and emotion vs. reason--which will never go out of style.
Directed by Darren Weller and presented in the Black Box Theatre, Salem is envisioned as a dystopian community set sometime in the future, possibly after a catastrophic event that led to a theocratic regime which stripped individual freedoms in exchange for safety. They live in a devastated urban center rather than the rural farming village of the text, so perhaps they sow crops and graze cattle in open areas around the city.
Joe Garcia Miranda's scenic design resembles an abandoned office complex of hard concrete and gnarled metal which is both expansive and claustrophobic, with a central skylight through which hazy beams of light stream as if God were keeping a close watch on the proceedings. Nothing is soft here except the rumpled costumes of Gabrielle Lewis--which look earthy and vaguely biblical for the secular, farmer characters and cold and tailored for those of strict faith--and the people who populate the stage, who are often put on the spot by the confrontational lighting of Kirt Matthew Siders with its geometric shapes, and the jarring sound design of Rosalie Chaleunsouck.
The alley-style configuration of the playing space--with audience on two sides--is challenging to stage and limits visibility of the performers who are often hushed in delivery or get caught up in emotion and forget to enunciate. Plus Weller's blocking is often stagnant and lacks energy, especially during the first half when numerous actors are onstage and the exposition is lengthy. It's difficult to invest in characters when we can't see their faces, but in certain scenes Weller seems to conserve movement so that tension builds to moments of explosive physical interaction, as choreographed by fight director Robin McFarquhar.
Nate Marble is a revelation as the flawed hero John Proctor. He has the strapping physicality of a tireless farmer and gives great depth to the sensible man with a conscience who must face the repercussions of his affair with Abigail Williams, played by Aviana Glover. They share a steamy scene of repulsion and attraction, and it's easy to see why Abby is so infatuated with him that she's willing to destroy the lives of innocent people. With her fiery portrait of heartless manipulation and adolescent fury at being sexually scorned, Glover is a force to be reckoned with.
Tola Lawal crafts a layered portrait of John's long-suffering wife Elizabeth, whom Abby accuses of witchcraft in hopes of taking her place. Lawal's quiet strength is a nice complement to Marble's mercurial side as they struggle to ford the chasm in their relationship, and one poignant scene features a holy trinity of sorts with investigator Reverend John Hale, portrayed by the sublime Bobby Lang. Intellectual and empathetic, Lang is a marvel to watch as he gradually transforms while grappling with doubt about the witchcraft claims and at the horrific persecution of innocent people. And Juliana Renee Martin imbues Mary Warren with emotional turmoil through both body and soul, while Delius Doherty gives measured flashes of humanity to the draconian magistrate Governor Danforth.
Performers in secondary roles are overshadowed and need to commit more fully to their portrayals. Johann Heske as Reverend Parris finds his footing as he grows to comprehend the weight of his actions, and Spencer Bisek as Thomas Putnam and Nicole Holbrook as his wife Ann give an air of righteous indignation but could use more venom behind their convictions. Weller has also made some distracting, gender-blind casting choices and it's unclear how we are meant to interpret them. Since shamans were often transgender in ancient societies, Noah Keeling as Tituba isn't too much of a stretch; Gail K. Romero brings humor as Giles Corey and Sherri Brewer gives a sweet Frances Nurse whether male or female or not; and Joan Mullaney's matriarchal Rebecca Nurse looks much too coiffed after months of imprisonment.
The tumultuous scene outside the courtroom is shocking as it builds momentum to the outburst of the repressed yet sexually charged girls who, in the throes of demonic possession, move about the stage in perfect unison like a murmuration of starlings. The stylized choreography of the girls' movement and vocalizations, including in the moody/pagan song of the sirens prologue, highlights the show.
"The Crucible" has many themes relevant to our times, but in essence NCT best captures the story of a good man grappling with the tragic consequences of his indiscretion.