There are three elements that make a Bedlam production exciting: deep respect for classical texts, inventive staging powered by keen-eyed direction, and stellar performances. Missteps are not unprecedented, but under the artistic and (frequent) stage direction of Eric Tucker, Bedlam most often celebrates classic theater by finding and celebrating the energy that gives it life.
All these qualities emerge in the company’s current production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Performed in the small Connelly Theater in Alphabet City, Tucker’s direction allows the show to vividly capture Miller’s despairing fascination with the spectacle at the heart of the Salem witch trials. Capturing the fullest potential of the Connelly’s space, Tucker has inverted the proceedings: performers work on the bare floor where seats would normally go; audience members sit on the stage and around the periphery of the floor. The effect positions performers in an arena below most spectators, as if in a living diorama to be examined with critical, probing curiosity.
Tucker’s use of space captures and exemplifies the McCarthyist parallel that runs latent throughout the play. Miller asks his audiences to wrestle with the sheer ridiculousness of it all, the way in which people can be swept up from all sides in the mania of blind faith. Tucker positions his audience in such a way to observe this frenzy, which is often lit starkly by handheld spotlights that refuse to let the performers hide much of anything, and positions his performers like objects of examination, under so many microscopes of probing eyes.
And the heat of this crucible of theatrical space fires Bedlam’s actors to gripping, tense performances. This is true among performers in relatively small roles and those like Zuzanna Szadkowski and Shirine Babb who take on several, but the play demands the most of its tense central triad: John Proctor (Ryan Quinn), Elizabeth Proctor (Susannah Millonzi), and Abigail Williams (Truett Felt). Miller defines these relationships as teeming with desire, regret, bitterness, and deep senses of self-righteousness and dignity. Each of these performers probes the depths of Miller’s characters to find great human struggle. Abigail could become a caricature of crazed desire, but Felt does not allow that here. Her Abigail is so unsettling because she is so knowable.
As scenes between John and Elizabeth punctuate pivotal moments of the play’s progression, Quinn and Millonzi grow progressively more tense, raw, and achingly real. For all the spectacle and courtroom pageantry of The Crucible, Tucker, Quinn, and Millonzi seize upon its most intimate moments to produce the most power.
Bedlam being Bedlam, there are moments of quirk and fun here, but all of the production’s choices seem purposefully in service of Miller’s play. This is not an American classic used as an excuse to show off creative theater, but rather insightful theatricality used as a means of finding the essence of an American classic. It is a haunting and wonderful Crucible.