The Commonwealth Theatre Center is known primarily as a conservatory program, but several times a year it puts shows on stage featuring their alumni, professors and other excellent actors from the local scene. These shows also offer students a chance to share the stage with working professionals, with decades of experience.
The current offering, from CTC’s Professional Company in Residence, is “The Crucible,” Arthur Miller’s seminal 1953 play. This play, a creative retelling of the Salem Witch Trials, is a quintessential part of the American theater.
I admit I have mixed feelings about this play. It is required reading in most high school English classes, has been made into a movie several times, and has been performed by way, way too many screaming teenagers over the years, especially because of the number of roles in the show that require screaming teenagers. It’s a play that is easy to hate.
But it also has my favorite speech of all time, in the final moments of the play, when protagonist John Proctor, a conflicted Puritan fighting against a rising sea of hysteria, must make a decision that could cost him his life.
The story, generally accepted to be, in some part, a comment on the McCarthyism, is almost depressingly continually potent and relevant. Every time I’ve seen it over the last couple of decades, it feels as if it has just been written about the politics of the day — and this production is no different.
When I heard Jonathan Patrick O’Brien would be playing Proctor, I was immediately 100 percent on board. He’s been featured locally in some of the greatest roles of the theatrical canon, including Hamlet, Macbeth and Marcus Anthony.
He continues to prove himself with every performance I’ve seen.
His work here is no exception. O’Brien takes Proctor and gives him the humanity, inner conflict and fiery passion that are needed to make the audience both root for Proctor and rue his mistakes.
Delightfully, Thursday’s audience contained quite a few people who were interacting with “The Crucible” for the first time, and hearing them agonize and gasp at the twists and turns of Proctor’s arc was pretty great, and each revelation and decision from Proctor was fully supported and realized by O’Brien.
This is O’Briens show, from the first moment he walks on stage to his final exit, but he is surrounded by some other strong performances, including several from the adults in the cast and a couple of very good performances from students at the conservatory.
Chief among them are Hallie Dizdarevic as Elizabeth Proctor, John’s wife. There’s a great, long one-on-one scene between them in the first half of the play, and it’s every bit as good as I’ve seen anywhere in Louisville theater.
It begins strained and contained, the silence between spouses who don’t want to fight anymore but still can’t change what is between them, and then it eventually explodes into the fight the two of them are avoiding.
This is the definition of the pressure cooker that finally burst. Nailing this kind of scene is a make-or-break moment for a lot of plays, and I wish more folks in Louisville could make it work this well.
The second half of “The Crucible” is dominated by the tense standoff between O’Brien’s Proctor and CTC’s artistic director Charlie Sexton, appearing here as Deputy Governor Danforth.
It’s a large set piece, with a lot of histrionics — the aforementioned screaming teen — and it manages to land most of the important moments, though it’s somewhat hampered by some of students on stage.
That is, of course, the danger of a show produced this way. It’s just as much — if not more — about a learning experience for the teens. I’d say we’re getting about half and half good performances out of the students, but even some of the better performances just can’t stand up against powerhouses like O’Brien, Dizdarevic, Sexton and the other adults on stage.
The student who plays the main antagonist, Abigail Williams (Frances Rippy), and another portraying Proctor’s young house keeper Mary Warren (Brooklyn Durs) offer the best student performances, embodying the terrible combination of childish spite and deadly adult consequences that drive this play. Rippy’s Abigail offers a chilling yet understandable contempt for the hypocrites in her life and injects a mixture of childlike hurt and teenage sexuality.
The air of implied sex or violence that hovers around many moments between those two students and the adults is all the more uncomfortable because of the actors’ age discrepancy, which actually matches what’s written in the script. Normally, either because it’s a high school production or a professional show, that age difference isn’t nearly as large — either the adults are played by teens, or the teens are played by adults.
When recreated faithfully, it’s damn unsettling.
Like many greats of the canon, there are debates being held offstage by academics and artists, and “The Crucible” is no different. After the first production back in the ’50s, the playwright excised a hefty scene in Act 2 where John and Abigail meet in the woods. People argue about the merits of including or excluding this scene, and I’m firmly in the “cut it” camp.
As my mother used to say, the audience will forgive you anything if you are brief.
Sexton, who does double duty as Danforth and director for production, has chosen to leave the scene in, and I wish he hadn’t.
It’s a great scene, it gives Abigail more motivation, it’s touching and chilling, but it slows the play waaaaaaay down, and it can make even the best production of “The Crucible” feel a bit overly long.
Rippy and O’Brien are doing great work in this scene, but I still feel like the final moments of the play suffer a little more when this scene is included.
Despite the evening shortcomings — a couple of sour performances from students, a couple of mismanaged moments and the unfortunate inclusion of that extra scene — CTC’s “The Crucible” rests comfortably on the shoulders of its leads, and I couldn’t ask for a better John Proctor to deliver my all-time favorite speech.
It’s well worth the time, especially if you haven’t had the opportunity to see the play on stage before.
“The Crucible” continues through Oct. 21, with shows Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and a 2 p.m. matinee on Saturdays. CTC is located at 1123 Payne St. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for kids.