It begins quietly, with white slabs of faux stone jutting out at odd angles and the faint sounds of nighttime. The audience is not ready when the child -- the woman? -- wanders onto the stage, and they become awkward onlookers to the half-started scene, unsure if they should be silent and reverent or finish their pre-show conversations until the lights fully dim. The scene presses on regardless, implicating the audience as accidental witnesses to this fiercely private moment in the dark of the woods. Thus begins the Los Altos Stage Company's chilling production of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible."
Though you may have read this seminal text in your 10th-grade English class, there is nothing like seeing a solid production of "The Crucible" mounted on stage. The story follows John Proctor, a farmer, whose brief moment of infidelity with the young Abigail Williams leads Abigail to wish death on John's wife, Elizabeth, so Abigail can marry John. When the young woman is discovered casting spells to ensure Elizabeth's death in the woods, she blames the witchcraft on a list of townspeople -- a list that includes Elizabeth. The townspeople quickly seize on the cry of witchcraft and, suddenly, nearly half the town is called on to "confess" or they will hang. As LASC rightly notes in its program, this is a tale of hysteria -- a look at what happens when faith, ego and blind allegiance to an interpretation of law supersede common sense. This is both a tale of revenge and a study of group behavior in the face of unprovable facts.
At the time when Miller was writing (the early 1950s), "The Crucible" was seen as a fairly heavy-handed condemnation of McCarthyism, but, as LSAC's production proves, this show is timeless. As long as we fallible human beings refuse to accept our fallibility and remain in search of an "other" to blame for our fears and misdeeds, we will always be vulnerable to the consuming and paranoiac hysteria that drives this piece.
Director Jeffrey Lo and his creative team paint this picture beautifully. In fact, the lighting, sound and stage design are stars in this show. In many ways, they function as the grim narrators of the story, subtly reminding us where to look and how to feel as we watch. Lighting Designer Nick Kumamoto's facile manipulations of light bring scenic designer Randy Wong-Westbrooke's strategically sparse stage to life, with the light becoming increasingly less subdued as fissures start to appear in the stage's cold stone. Howard Ho's sound design is also a paradoxically muted standout -- only if you listen closely, can you hear the creaking of the old houses as they settle ... or is that creaking the sound of a body swinging from a noose?
This backdrop supports a powerful cast, though the acting does feel, at times, a bit unbalanced. The strength of the leads often makes stark the discomfort some cast members feel in acting through the stilted language of the script. That said, don't let the potential for awkward pauses for breath or jumped lines deter you -- as the play goes on, the actors seem to grow more comfortable with the lines. Max Tachis (John Proctor), Roneet Aliza Rahamim (Elizabeth Proctor) and Nicole Apostol Bruno (Abigail Williams) are more than equipped to carry the show and each give standout performances. I applaud Lo's gender-blind casting of Maria Giere Marquis as the Reverend John Hale, as Marquis breathes nuance and life into Hale's complex character. Similarly, Alexandra Ho (Mary Warren), Leslie Ivy (Tituba) and Gary Landis (Giles Corey) all admirably handle the weight and heft of their supporting roles, and the dead-eyed chorus of young girls (Neiry Rojo, Brittany Pisoni and Ellen Schwartz) brilliantly embody hysteria, whether they're leaping about the stage in dance, standing stiff as a board in the presence of their elders or screaming in fear of imagined devils.
Like so many artists today, the creative team had the option to take such an explicitly political piece and turn it into an undisguised commentary about current events. But the LASC made the brave -- and I think better -- choice not to do so. With so many Facebook posts, podcasts, news reports and articles discussing and dissecting the nuances of our political climate from all angles, it is a relief to be able to turn it all off for a few hours and experience the collective catharsis that a good piece of theater induces. There is time enough to discuss the parallels while driving home; the few hours that the audience is immersed in Miller's play become a reprieve from the lectures, hot takes and opinions. The director and dramaturg let the story speak for itself, and, in doing so, the story echoes powerfully off of the faux stone slabs surrounding the the stage. And because the story speaks for itself, it demands to be heard.
Freelance writer Kaila Prins can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
What: "The Crucible."
Where: Bus Barn Theater, 97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos.
When: Through Oct. 1.
Info: Go to LASC.