Rhett Pennell and Steven Wolf in “The Crucible” at Surfside Playhouse. Photo by Pam Harbaugh
By PAM HARBAUGH
Given our rampant political disharmony, “The Crucible” is theatrical fruit ripe for the picking.
Indeed, its universality is one of the reasons Surfside Playhouse chose last year to mount a production of the eminent 1953 Arthur Miller drama.
“I felt that Americans were ready for a show about honor,” said director Bryan Bergeron.
Although the play is set in 1692, Miller wrote the play to reflect the mass hysteria and repression wrought upon the American public by McCarthyism in the 1950s.
As put forth on PBS’s “Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan and the Blacklist: None Without Sin,” Miller was friends with famed director Elia Kazan who gave in to Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s pressure and gave up names of leftist leaning actors and playwrights. That prompted Miller to research the 17th century Salem Witch Trials, which he believed were the “perfect metaphor” for the witch hunts of the 20th century McCarthy era.
The complex play is set in the Puritan village of Salem, Mass. where Rev. Parris’ daughter lies motionless. Rev. John Hale, an expert in witchcraft, comes to help, stirring up the town’s smoldering fear of witches. Further accelerating the action is the past affair between farmer John Proctor and teenage girl Abigail Williams. Still in love with him and trying to manipulate his feelings towards her, Abigail leads a group of teenage girls in accusations of witchcraft against dozens of women, including Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth.
A court case ensues, led by Deputy Governor Danforth. As threats are waged, people relent and confess to demonic actions in order to save themselves. John Proctor is also put on trial. At the heart of the drama is his decision to either keep his honor or save himself by confessing to something he didn’t do.
Rhett Pennell portrays John Proctor in the Surfside production. He said he reaches emotional depths in this production that he has never experienced before on stage.
A former professional actor who played Igor in Surfside’s recent production of the musical comedy “Young Frankenstein,” Pennell spent most of his acting career doing comedies and children’s theater.
His last drama was in college when he did “Death of a Salesman,” also written by Arthur Miller. He said the opportunity Bergeron gave him to tackle the role of John Proctor is an “amazing, meaty gift.”
“John Proctor is a challenging, difficult man presented here in the darkest time of his life,” Pennell said. “(It) is an amazing role in a thunderous and truly classic play.”
Working in an Arthur Miller play also motivated actors Steven Wolf and Terrence Girard to get involved. Both men had been in excellent 2016 production of “The Price” at Melbourne Civic Theatre.
“I wanted the challenge of tackling another Arthur Miller play,” said Wolf, who plays Rev. Hale. “I found (‘The Price’) to be highly charged emotionally, frustrating and rich with dialogue that verges on the operatic. The same can be said of ‘The Crucible’.”
Also a former professional actor, Wolf enjoys working on a real life character who he said is the play’s “most human.” He likens Hale to both Pandora, who opens the box and can’t get the evils back in, and Pontius Pilate, who will never be able to wash his hands of his deeds.
In addition to tackling one of Miller’s most multi-faceted characters, there was the appeal of working with his favorite stage colleagues, Wolf said.
“I had heard that some of the actors that I have always liked working with were also going to be auditioning for our director, Bryan Bergeron, an added bonus,” he said.
Certainly, having both Wolf and Girard on stage together is a treat for Brevard theater patrons. The two have intense scenes.
“Well, we’re in Brevard County, and if someone’s going to produce an Arthur Miller play, it’s all but a moral imperative that actors audition for it,” Girard said. “I saw this play on their schedule when the season was announced and knew then I’d be going out for it.”
Girard was cast in the role of Deputy Governor Danforth. His actor’s intent, he said, was influenced by Broadway’s acclaimed 2016 updated production which famously starred Saoirse Ronan, Ciaran Hinds, Ben Whishaw and Sophie Okonedo.
Its director, Ivo van Hove, who had won a Tony the year before for his minimalist Broadway production of another Miller classic, “A View from the Bridge,” made the fear of witches palpable to the audience, Girard said.
“In his vision, the evil invading the village was real,” Girard said. “One of the girls levitated, windstorms burst through the windows, a wolf walked through the empty courtroom, words wrote themselves on a blackboard.
“This has informed my performance of Danforth, who everyone always wants to dismiss as villain. But looked at through his lens, there are witches whose evil has to be rooted out and extinguished. He may be misguided, or not.”
Bergeron has a faith and respect for the work done by his entire cast, especially that of: Amanda Gazy (Mary Warren), Katie McCall (Abigail Williams), Joanne Maio (Elizabeth Proctor), Anthony Mowad (Rev. Parris), Chris Tsocanos (Thomas Putnam), Becky Behl-Hill (Ann Putnam) and Chloe Collins (Tituba).
However, he did admit that the work done by Pennell, Wolf and Girard raises the bar for the whole team.
“We’re talking, really, about three guys, all good performers, all with tons of experience, all relatively strong-willed starting at the top with Terry,” he said, chuckling.
Bergeron said that more than anything, he wants the audience to be entertained by the play and realize Surfside’s respect for the script and the playwright.
His wish may be coming true. Opening night brought thunderous applause and a standing ovation. Given the excellence of his entire cast, Bergeron expects that will be the case for the entire run.
“Kudos to Surfside for having the chutzpah to gamble on it,” Girard said. “Let’s hope it pays off so they can take more such risks. Surfside has always been among the most risk-taking of the community theaters.”
SIDE O’ GRITS: “The Crucible” runs through Jan. 27 at Surfside Playhouse, 301 Ramp Road (5th Street South), Cocoa Beach, FL. Tickets are $25 general and $22 military, student and seniors. A $1.75 service fee may be applied. Call 321-783-3127 or visit SurfsidePlayers.com.
This is an edited version of a story running next week in the Melbourne Beachsider.