Monday, June 19, 2006

The Crucible in Healdsburg

Every great civilization has its theater. The Greeks, the Romans, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Elizabethans, the French court -- all those great civilizations depended on the theater for public contemplation, discussion, and enactment of the pressing issues of the day. Actors, a public space, an engaged audience, and speech served as a sounding board for the verbal examination of the great issues: moral, political, personal, familial, religious.

Tragic, comic, historical, or fictional: playwrights from Aeschylus to Harold Pinter and beyond have kept this tradition vital: considering timeless problems of human life on earth; casting various points of view on memorable dramatic personae; examining conflicting versions, opposed actions, irreconcilable passions on what remains arguably the most flexible, all-encompassing, fascinating focus yet devised for human attention: the theater stage.

One thing wrong with contemporary life is the relative absence of community theater. The great issues of the day are debated, if at all, on television. Generally one-dimensional considerations of public matters are given short, often superficial notice in the newspapers. Virtually every issue that is discussed in this multicultural country which prizes individual dignities is reduced to polarized opposing positions which are given “equal time.”
Theater, which spends an entire evening on the airing of its dramatic subject, has been largely replaced by commercial entertainment increasingly enjoyed in private: television, videotape, and the DVD have replaced the movie theater with the living room, as surely as the movie theater replaced vaudeville and burlesque, not to mention the legitimate theater that once prospered in small cities across the country.

Technological and commercial evolution has changed not only the means of entertainment but inevitably its quality and meaning as well. But theater is irrational in its will to persevere, if only because of the dedication, the passion, of its practitioners. In Healdsburg, of all places, pop. 10,000, there is relevant, resourceful, entertaining, provocative, and above all communitarian theater.

Its most recent production was The Crucible, written by Arthur Miller in 1953, in response to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communism campaign -- vital history to fewer and fewer of us, but suddenly all too relevant again. The program quoted McCarthy:

Today we are engaged in an all out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity… Can there be any one here tonight who is so blind as to say that the war is not on? Can there be anyone who fails to realize that the Communist world has said, “The time is now” -- that this is the time for the show down between the democratic Christian world and the Communist atheistic world?

Miller’s response was a dramatic meditation on the intricacies of the Salem witch hunts. Massachusetts, 1692: a few adolescent girls dance naked in the woods, led on perhaps by the exotic Tituba, a slave nursemaid brought from Barbados by the tense, zealous, egotistical parson Samuel Parris, a Harvard man determined to be important and to keep his congregation strictly at heel.

In this rigorous, autocratic, monocultural (and monomaniacal) community there is no explanation of such lewdness but witchcraft. Before long nearly everyone’s indicted, because the only plausible cause of a succession of stillbirths, or a wife who insists on reading books, or a sick child, or an inability to raise healthy pigs, is witchcraft. What cannot be explained through common sense can only arouse suspicion, and suspicion inevitably leads to denunciation and punishment.

There is really nothing simple about any of this. Miller’s play is “about” morals, “moral politics,” the morality of politics (and the politics of morality); but also about the growing distance, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, between landed gentry and honest farmer, between preacher and serving-girl, between freeman and slave. (Mercifully, Miller leaves the American Indian out of the picture -- except for one gruesome recollection by the complex, passionate, troubled Abigail Williams: “I saw my parents’s skulls smashed on their pillows.”)

If the play is about these public crises, it is also about all the familiar individual ones: adolescent yearnings, marital infidelity, proud careerism, insolence, weakness before authority, hunger. Eternal issues arise at the intersections of these individual crises with the public ones, and that’s what The Crucible is about.

But it’s more than anything else about the conflict between the natural human animal and the societized civil unit we all must be if we are to live in a civilized society -- or even a tribal one. This is a matter of some concern. If you don’t think we must all think long and hard about confronting pressing social (what some call, misleadingly, “political”) concerns, think about Iraq -- or go see the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

Well, our local community theater company has done a first-rate job by The Crucible. The production is in the round, set out in the country, out of doors on a grassy field by an oak woodland, beginning at twilight, the girls’s songs ringing from down by the creek, Deputy Governor Danforth scowling at his desk.

When not on stage, all the actors are seated among the audience, always in character. This is brilliant, for it eases the link between Miller’s play (and its matter) and us in the audience. Since actors are seated among us, we inescapably take our place within the action.

Last summer this company put on a haunting and memorable production of Sophocles’s Antigone, like The Crucible a tragedy about the conflict between individual moral responsibility and an authoritarian society. This week’s performance of The Crucible reveals those similarities -- across two and a half millennia of history! In 2,500 years, society has refused to learn from that history!

But the performance also reveals the strength of this theater company -- strength of ensemble, shown in the ease of their interruptions, the quick exchanges, the vivid flow of emotion and intelligence; even, when necessary, the resourcefulness with which they meet unforeseen problems: the sudden drop of a few pages of dialogue; the insistent screaming of a neighbor’s peacock or the drone of a nearby tractor.

There’s also individual strength. Karna Southall was a fine, brooding, sinister, wholly troubled Abigail. Alex Walker did well as the complex, high-minded, essentially weak preacher Samuel Parris. Avery Sholl was a resourceful, often commanding John Proctor. Nicole Mitchell made sense of the intricate, finally ethical Reverend John Hale. Caitlin Coey personified the absurdity of individual moral commitment even at the cost of life and family as Elizabeth Proctor. Odin Halverson rose, after a problematic first night, to the bluster and complacency of Governor Danforth.

Secondary roles were often just as well achieved: Amanda Haecker as Tituba; Quenby Dolgushkin as Mrs. Putnam and, later, Ezekiel Cheever (for a number of roles were double-cast); Anna Fuertsch as both Rebecca Nurse and her husband Francis; Ian Houghton as Giles Corey.

Emma Monrad took the pivotal small role of Mary Warren, whose eventual turnaround tries to bring Salem to its senses; and here I must reveal that (as many of you know) she is my granddaughter, and thereby that all these actors are in fact adolescents. The company producing this Crucible is the “Teen Ensemble” of Healdsburg’s Imagination Foundation. But this is not children’s theater: it is simply community theater, with the difference that some of these community actors may well become professional actors in the future.

Of course it adds to the pleasure, not to mention the intellectual reward, of any thoughtful member of their audience, that in this production one sees adolescent minds coming to terms with what is essentially a drama about the adolescent mind -- literally in the case of the unfortunate girls whose woodland revelries lead to hanging; more extensively the case of a society like Salem’s, formed by rebellion against authority, attempting an idealistic community of conformism, failing to understand context or complexity, innocent of irony. (A society troublingly like our own, needless to say.)

And that adds one more layer of meaning and relevance to this production. Seeing it, thinking about it, we deal with so many issues, from Salem to Sonoma County, from 17th-century Christian zeal to 20th-century ditto; elections, the death penalty, the uncertainty of social justice, the irrationality of animal instincts in the context of social structure -- and we see a group of intelligent, eager, relatively innocent boys and girls -- I insist on calling them that, and not “young adults” -- working with their own approach to the world into which they must soon take their adult place.

The final paragraph from the program:

The Teen Ensemble has been working on this play for four months. In every way it has been a challenge; material, speech, historical context, maintaining ensemble. That is why we chose it. And through this process we confront ourselves -- our habits, judgments and fears. Now we share with you the inherent challenge of this play and the legacy that Arthur Miller has left us.

Those are the words of the directors of both the company and the production, I believe: Brent Lindsay and Amy Pinto, who with characteristic modesty leave their own names off the program. Any community is fortunate to have resident such intelligence, commitment, insight, and artistic power; and the young actors who work with them are particularly fortunate.

1 comment:

Kate Sholl said...


Loved your review and was glad to find it. Thanks for making this available to the community, both local and on the net.

One small thing - Avery Sholl is actually Avery Risling-Sholl. But you got Sholl right; no c. Thank you for the good things you said about him, also.

Kate Sholl