Devil's Playground

With The Crucible, new insights into an old attempt at faith-based initiatives

The Crucible serves as timeless cautionary tale, but its beauty also lies in how the honor of its fatally flawed hero, John Proctor, is revealed through his resistance to injustice. A married farmer, Proctor (played at WaterTower by the astonishingly good Joe Nemmers) stands trial on charges of dealings with the devil. A young maid, Abigail Williams (Jenny Ledel), is in love with him and believes naming his wife, Elizabeth (Shelley Tharp-Payton), a witch will get the woman out of the way. The townsfolk regard Elizabeth as pious and relentlessly truthful, so when she lies to the court about her husband's adultery with Abigail, she's doomed to the gallows. John is told he and his wife will be spared if he confirms Elizabeth's unholy alliances. He's tempted to lie, but emboldened by his wife's courage, he chooses honorable death instead.

The most touching and beautifully acted scenes in The Crucible (the word means "terrible trial") unfold between John and Elizabeth, in their farmhouse in act two and in the barn that serves as a prison in the final act (Clare Floyd Devries' scenic design sets the action inside a cavernous rough-hewn box). Nemmers and Tharp-Payton bring a sharp, raw tension to their characters' relationship. See how her Elizabeth winces when John criticizes her rabbit stew. That makes their bittersweet reunion at the end even more wrenching.

WaterTower's artistic director Terry Martin adds to the epic scope of this staging by casting some of Dallas theater's strongest professional actors. R Bruce Elliott makes Danforth a flesh and blood tyrant, determined to prove the devil's deeds against all logic. He struts through the trial scene puffed up with his own piety (and wearing Gucci loafers, which is a little confusing amid the period costumes). Paul Taylor and Chamblee Ferguson as Salem's competing preachers, Parris and Hale, are a prized pair of blustery Bible-thumpers, though Taylor starts the play at perhaps too high a pitch energy-wise to leave him anyplace to build to.

Some of The Crucible's most touching and beautifully acted scenes involve Shelly Tharp-Payton and Joe Nemmers.
Some of The Crucible's most touching and beautifully acted scenes involve Shelly Tharp-Payton and Joe Nemmers.

The finest performance comes from the actor in the noblest role. Steve M. Powell as the crusty Giles Corey emerges as the ultimate truth-teller in the piece, announcing at the height of the frenzy that the girls are frauds and their accusations ridiculous. For that, he's executed in a particularly grisly manner (unseen by the audience but recounted by a witness). Powell, with a voice like Hal Holbrook, cautiously underplays and therefore is riveting.

And surrounded by veterans like these, young Ledel as the scheming Abigail, and Maxey Whitehead as her friend Mary Warren, the one who breaks ranks with the other girls only to be drawn back into their madness, hold their own admirably. Both actresses are college grads who look a decade younger. What a gift it must be to experience so great a play so early in one's acting career.

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