Review By erin hebert
Atmosphere was the first thing you noticed about New Deal Creative Arts Center’s production of The Crucible. The Pleasant Plains Presbyterian Church in Staatsburg, where the production was staged, is foreboding as you drive up to it. Proud Roman columns stand guard outside, backlit in stark white light, and there’s even (presumably for Halloween) a set of stocks outside. The location is immediately intimidating and upon entering the church, the feeling that you’ve been transported back to the founding days of the Hudson Valley is inescapable.
Upon entering the church, we were told that the heat inside must be turned off during the performance to improve sound quality, and we are encouraged to take blankets to keep warm. The ushers apologized for this, but they could not have foreseen how intensely this cold would add to the ambience—it crept in slowly throughout Act 1, and by the time the lights came up for intermission, it was impossible to discern shivers of cold from shivers of fear. Bundled in our blankets, we almost felt like kids hearing a ghost story—one that really happened, could happen again, and is all the more frightening for that.
Much work is done for the production by the space, before the actors even step on stage; but when they do, they take the ambience and magnify it through stellar performances, high tension, and great use of space.
The act begins at a breakneck pace with Denis Silvestri’s Reverend Parris at his daughter’s bedside, distraught and desperate to know the cause of her sudden incapacitation. Having discovered his daughter and some other local girls dancing in the woods the night, Parris is terrified by the idea that his daughter may be struck down by witchcraft. He questions his niece, Abigail Williams, but she stands strong in her claim that she and the other girls were only dancing. Throughout the opening scene, Silvestri’s trepidation is palpable, and the rapid-fire pace of his discussion with Abigail sets the tone for the rest of the show.
After Parris leaves, Abigail meets with the other girls to threaten them into silence about what they were actually doing in the forest the night prior. Abigail, played by Steavie Hergenrader Reed, accomplishes an impressively immediate shift in attitude when alone with her compatriots: to her uncle, she’s the perfect, pious, well-behaved young woman, but to the other girls in town, she is a figure to be respected, obeyed, and most importantly, feared. Abigail’s partners in crime, Mercy Lewis and Mary Warren, played by Jess Lyke and Lauren Silverman respectively, are standouts in their own right. The group as a whole deftly walks the line between innocent young women and women capable of murder; they evoke the ruthlessness of teenagers mixed with the naivete of not truly understanding the gravity of what their accusations will accomplish.
Soon Parris returns with other townsfolk to discuss his daughter’s condition, and it’s in these large group scenes that the acting truly shines. Thomas and Ann Putnam, played by Kevin McCarthy and Tessa DeBella, played off each other brilliantly. McCarthy’s Thomas was suitably proud and smug, feeling reinforced against the scourge of witchcraft by his wealth and influence in the town. DeBella’s Ann Putnam was the polar opposite: manic, terrified, and ready to accuse someone of witchcraft at the drop of a hat. DeBella’s tension and desperation was compelling, and her borderline hysteria drove the scene into the powderkeg it becomes.
The Putnams are joined in Parris’ house by Rebecca Nurse and Giles Corey, two elders of the town, as well as Reverend John Hale, an official hired to investigate the witchcraft, and John Proctor, a local farmer and the object of Abigail Williams’ infatuation. Rebecca Nurse, played by Marie Hasenpflug, and Giles Corey, played by Farrell Reynolds, were both portrayed with impressive conviction and even understated comedic timing—neither will have anything to do with the witchcraft rumors and treat it as ridiculous. However, their voices of reason are no match for the mob mentality that is beginning to seep in, and the scenes which follow become progressively more difficult to watch—because of the skill of the actors involved and the dark, timely nature of the source material.
The first of many troubling scenes is when Parris questions Tituba, his slave, about what happened in the forest the night before. Although the audience knows that Tituba was not responsible for what happened, we must watch in uncomfortable silence as Parris rails against her with such blind fury that she eventually confesses. It’s a scene that offers a glimpse into life for an enslaved woman of color in the Puritan era, and it’s chilling to watch her white enslaver scream at her until her will is broken. Gabrielle St. Evensen plays Tituba with understated strength and such genuine emotion that her plight becomes one of the most sympathetic in the production.
It’s clear that the hunt for witches and the hysteria therein is the crux of the play, but the prowess of Joe Eriole’s John Proctor and Alex Petrova’s Elizabeth Proctor, steals the show when they are featured. Both are remarkable in the depths of their characters individually; Joe Eriole’s John Proctor is unflappable, an oasis of calm in the midst of hysteria, a man of pride—except in his transgressions. Alex Petrova Emisi’s Elizabeth Proctor is a woman of ice; stern, pious, and the epitome of Puritan womanhood. Both actors were consistent, thorough, and utterly genuine in their characters, and when they interact onstage, it’s magic. In the wake of John’s adultery with the now scheming Abigail, a former Proctor household servant, Eriole and Petrova Emisi’s delivery of the couple’s terse conversations overlayed a deeply felt emotion, hurt, and yearning for reconciliation, that neither are sure will ever come. But Elizabeth is never outwardly angry with John, she never yells or berates him—her anger takes the form of calculated stoicism, immovable by John’s pleas for forgiveness, and Petrova’s precision in this resolve was beautifully wrought.
How the righteous characters are utterly broken by the witchcraft hysteria was deftly done by the actors, and this was shown particularly well in Austin Carrothers’ Reverend Hale. Carrothers crafted an impressive character arc throughout the show: in the beginning, filled with pride and self-righteousness, but also the patience to question those accused of witchcraft with kindness and respect. He never devolves into the hysterics that Reverend Parris and Ann Putnam exhibit, and Carrothers was notable in his ability to remain calm in the manic environment provided by those characters. However, by the end of the play, Hale’s faith is shaken enough to quit his participation in the trials entirely. The shell that remains of Reverend Hale by the play’s conclusion is heartbreakingly far from who he was at the beginning. To see a man fall so far in his faith, battered so thoroughly by human ruthlessness, is one of the production’s many well-executed tragedies.
The scariest thing about the show is the hysteria, at its Broadway premiere and still today, is the paranoia, and the destruction of innocent people in the name of fearhmongering witchhunters—but a close second in New Deal’s production was Michael Frohnhoefer as Deputy Governor Danforth. His performance was captivating and terrifying all at once. Danforth is a man so utterly malevolent, serious, calculated, and self-assured in his viciousness that the ends always justify the means, even if those means include killing dozens of people. Any objection is met with a glance that could shake a mountain, and every word Froenhoeffer speaks was spoken with such conviction, precision, and a justice so devoid of mercy that it’s staggering.
New Deal’s production of The Crucible was a powerhouse of acting ability, ensemble cohesion, and deep emotion. The story is a timely one—the power of a mob is indisputable and terrifying, and while this hysteria is now approximately 400 years old, the human capability of such a tragedy again is alive and well. Led by Thom Webb’s able direction, the actors took the space and source material and elevated it to such a height that the audience left feeling utterly shaken and emotionally drained. New Deal continued to show itself an innovative and creative company since its inception just two years ago.
Erin has performed with multiple community theater groups in the Hudson Valley. Most recent productions include Matilda and Jesus Christ Superstar with The Center for the Performing Arts at Rhinebeck. She works at IBM as a physical design engineer.
Editing note: Hudson Valley Ovation notes that due to the connection of persons involved in the production reviewed, Ms. Hebert’s review was edited by a freelance editor retained by HVO for that purpose.