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Theater Reviews : Vivid Portrait of 17th-Century McCarthyism

November 04, 1994|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FULLERTON — The Vanguard Ensemble Theatre is looking more and more like the class of the field among Orange County's storefront troupes, especially with its latest offering of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible."

Under the guiding hand of producing artistic director Terry Gunkel, who also founded the 3-year-old company, the Vanguard is staging a vigorous, thoughtful, intense performance of a singularly great play about an American community devoured by zealotry and rancor.

There are, it is true, only a handful of storefront troupes around the county. But none to my knowledge could handle the size and scope of "The Crucible" with anything like the Vanguard's surprising authority.

This is not to say the production is flawless. That would be asking too much. But Gunkel and his company do not shortchange the play emotionally or intellectually, despite unseasoned actors, shoestring finances and makeshift resources.

"The Crucible" takes us back to Puritan times and deposits us in the village of Salem, Mass., during the infamous witchcraft trials of 1692. Written at the height of the McCarthy era, it was Miller's response to the red-baiting hysteria whipped up by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in hearings that demanded ritual humiliations.

"The main point of the hearings, precisely as in 17th-Century Salem," the playwright wrote in his autobiography, "was that the accused make public confession, damn his confederates as well as his devil master, and guarantee his sterling new allegiance by breaking disgusting old vows--whereupon he was let loose to rejoin the society of extremely decent people."

You couldn't just confess or recant. The litmus test of true contrition was naming names, without which the committee refused its absolution. That you might only have flirted with the Communist Party years before and were no longer a member made no difference. You still had to finger someone.

*

But "The Crucible" does more than draw the eerie parallel between HUAC's kangaroo court and Salem's hanging judges. It shows an entire society descending into mass paranoia as the charge of witchcraft poisons the air. Husbands spy on their wives, children denounce their parents. Neighbors settle old scores by making fatal accusations.

At the center of this maelstrom are three people whose lives, like the rest, spiral downward inexorably into a catastrophe of bad faith:

* Abigail Williams, played here with icy petulance by Wendy Abas, the willful serving girl who twists her thwarted passion for a married farmer into a web of deceit. She sends people to the gallows merely by pointing her finger.

* John Proctor, tautly portrayed by Michael Keith Allen, the defiant yeoman farmer who regrets his secret adultery with Abigail but who faces a much larger struggle with his conscience over whether to save his life or his honor.

* Elizabeth Proctor, his strong yet fragile wife, whose inner torment is quietly brought to the surface by Jill Cary Martin in the production's most affecting performance. She is the first to see Abigail's monumental spite for what it is--the wish to supplant her.

The village is fertile soil, moreover, for the distrust and suspicion sowed by Abigail and her band of girlfriends, who go into hysterics on her command and claim to see the devil everywhere.

Even before their wild accusations, an exorcist has been called in by the local preacher. And it isn't long before the deputy governor himself arrives to take charge of the communal cleansing by extracting confessions of witchcraft under penalty of death.

*

All of this is brought off with muscular flair on a simple, sparely furnished set. The planked flooring and a few well-placed beams suggest rustic architecture, while the homespun costumes convey all the necessary period details without being fussy.

Though "The Crucible" has a moody temper and tells a horrific tale, this production is not overly burdened with gloom. It moves swiftly and intimately toward a climactic ending that resonates with insight.

Other standouts among the large cast are Sarah Lang as Mary Warren; Robert Shaun Kilburn as Rev. Hale; Stefanie Williamson as Tituba; and Howard Johnston as Rev. Parris.

* "The Crucible," Vanguard Theatre Ensemble, 699 S. State College Blvd, Fullerton. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 5 p.m. Ends Dec. 3. $10-$14. (714) 526-8007. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes. Christina Jenkin: Betty Parris

Howard Johnston: Rev. Parris

Stefanie Williamson: Tituba

Wendy Abas: Abigail Williams

Joan Maurer: Susan Walcott

Laura Miller: Mrs. Anne Putnam/Sarah Good

David Billman: Thomas Putnam

Joni Higginbotham: Mercy Lewis

Sarah Lang: Mary Warren

Michael Keith Allen: John Proctor

Sue Ozeran: Rebecca Nurse

K. Robert Eaton: Giles Corey

Robert Shaun Kilburn: Rev. John Hale

Jill Cary Martin: Elizabeth Proctor

Robert Knapp: Francis Nurse

Tony Masters: Ezekiel Cheever

Michael Wilhelm: Judge Hawthorne

Stuart Eriksen: Deputy Gov. Danforth

A Vanguard Theatre Ensemble production of a play by Arthur Miller. Directed by Terry Gunkel. Producer: Wade Williamson. Scenic designer: Daniel Nyiri. Costume designer: Mela Hoyt-Heyden. Costume coordinator: Laurel Kelsh. Stage manager: John Vasquez.

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