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Theatre Review: Otterbein’s Uneven but Still Powerful Crucible

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theatre Review: Otterbein’s Uneven but Still Powerful CrucibleAsel Swango (Abigail Williams), left to right, Kara Jobe (Betty Parris), Steven Meeker (Rev. Samuel Parris), Connor Allston (John Proctor), and Ben Folts (Rev. John Hale) in the Otterbein University Theatre & Dance production of “The Crucible.” Photo by Wes Kroninger.
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Otterbein University opened a new production of Arthur Miller’s classic The Crucible directed by Melissa Lusher in their Campus Center Theatre on Thursday. The Crucible stands up as a powerful statement about the seductive hysteria of a mob and the ugly vanity of men. Sadly, the play always seems to speak to the American condition.

The story opens with the new minister in Salem, Reverend Parris (Steven Meeker), standing over his daughter (Kara Jobe), struck by a mysterious sickness with rumors of witchcraft swirling, undermining a flock suspicious of the reverend’s avarice and ego. The fault lines in the town already run deep in the wake of John Proctor’s (Connor Allston) affair with Parris’ niece, teenage girl Abigail Williams (Asel Swango), and the resultant tension with his wife Elizabeth (Maddy Loehr) who discovered them and put Williams out. The understandable craven desire to deflect blame from oneself snowballs into revenge and leads straight to the gallows.

Steven Meeker (Rev. Samuel Parris), left to right, Asel Swango (Abigail Williams), Evan Moore-Coll (Deputy-Governor Danforth), Connor Allston (John Proctor), Ben Folts (Rev. John Hale), Maddy Loehr (Elizabeth Proctor), and Kara Jobe (Betty Parris) in the Otterbein University Theatre & Dance production of “The Crucible.” Photo by Wes Kroninger.

Steven Meeker (Rev. Samuel Parris), left to right, Asel Swango (Abigail Williams), Evan Moore-Coll (Deputy-Governor Danforth), Connor Allston (John Proctor), Ben Folts (Rev. John Hale), Maddy Loehr (Elizabeth Proctor), and Kara Jobe (Betty Parris) in the Otterbein University Theatre & Dance production of “The Crucible.” Photo by Wes Kroninger.

The slide to hell plays out on a gorgeous, semi-abstract stage designed by Stephanie R Gerckens, all brushed metal and lit with an eerie glow (lighting design by TJ Gerckens) with minimal props. The best touch of the stage is that all the action happens in the shadow of a pipe ominously bedecked by ropes. The costumes by Julia Ferreri have a similar unstuck-in-time quality, riffing on the period of the setting as well as retro science fiction of the ’50s and ’60s. Lusher’s direction effectively uses immersion with speeches and action happening in the aisles behind most of the audience at times. That technique heightens identification with the characters’ confusion and paranoia.

At heart, The Crucible is about the power of words and the limits on that power. It’s riddled with some of the most gripping speeches in the history of theatre and that long, expressive language will lay bare any deficiencies in acting. That’s where this production stumbles – often it feels like half the people on stage got lost on their way to another, more broadly comic play. The two “older” men are the worst offenders here with Giles Corey walking with a limp straight out of a Chaplin impression and talking like a supporting character in a John Garfield gangster movie of the 30s. The side judges aren’t much better; suddenly it’s as though the stage has been besieged by cartoons.

Kara Jobe (Betty Parris) and Steven Meeker (Rev. Samuel Parris) in the Otterbein University Theatre & Dance production of “The Crucible.” Photo by Wes Kroninger.

Kara Jobe (Betty Parris) and Evan Moore (Deputy Governor Danforth) in the Otterbein University Theatre & Dance production of “The Crucible.” Photo by Wes Kroninger.

That unevenness never quite sinks this bulletproof play. Part of what buoys the production up are some excellent performances. Allston’s Proctor tears into that gorgeous outrage and flowing language with both hands as Loehr’s Goody Proctor adds some needed gravity and psychological realism. There’s a fascinating mirroring I’d never noticed before between Mary Warren (Kaylee Barrett) whose conscience won’t quite let her be even as she benefits from the new power and attention at the front of the mob and Deputy-Governor Danforth (Evan Moore-Coll) whose sense of fairness and reason desperately tries to mesh with his arrogance and intolerance for questioning his authority. Meeker’s Parris is a virtuosic look at the ways a man crumbles.

As crucial now as when it was written using the Salem trials as an allegory for the red scare, The Crucible is a bracing tonic for these paranoid, fearful, angry times. Even a mixed production will still raise the hair on your arm and draw you in.

The Crucible runs through October 29 with performances at 8:00 pm Thursday through Saturday. For tickets and more info, visit otterbein.edu.

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