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New Test for 'The Crucible'

David Wheeler plans to heat up the famous play by adding a dance scene. It opens Friday in Irvine.


IRVINE — One of his favorite questions for acting students is "Hey, do Hamlet and Ophelia sleep together?"

David Wheeler, who is staging Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" at the Irvine Barclay Theatre (opening Friday), maintains that the characters in Shakespeare's "Hamlet," Miller's classic or any drama have "backstories" that go a long way toward shaping the mood of a production.

"That's critically important," says Wheeler, who has directed Dustin Hoffman, Stockard Channing, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Jon Voight, Blythe Danner, James Woods and, perhaps most significantly, Al Pacino in a dozen plays--among them "The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel" on Broadway (1977), for which Pacino won a best-actor Tony Award, and "Richard III," also on Broadway (1979).

Wheeler, who is resident director at Robert Brustein's American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., contends that a character's offstage history--whether implicit or explicit in the text--provides a key not just to the interpretation of a role or a scene but to the flow of events that drives the play.

Without the players fully imagining these backstories or at least sketching them in with life-defining moments, Wheeler asserts, their roles are more likely to lack depth and clarity, not to say the persuasive motivation that makes a character's actions authentic.

The actors playing Hamlet and Ophelia, for example, "ought to know whether they've slept together or not," Wheeler explained during a recent interview on the UCI campus. "When she comes to give his remembrances back, think of the difference it makes in attitude if he hasn't slept with her.

"She could be saying, 'Please make your pitch a full plea and go to my dad and ask him for my hand in marriage.' But if they've already slept together, there's this deep communion. Then when she gives his things back, it's a totally different scene. You have to decide which way it is."

As applied to "The Crucible," these and other ideas have yielded what Wheeler considers "an unusual" production.

For one thing, he intends to set an exotic, even surreal, tone from the beginning by inserting a night dance only spoken of in the play, in the most horrific terms by the 17th century Puritans of Salem.

He also is reordering the sequence of two important scenes, and, at the risk of lengthening a long play, he has the actors addressing the audience directly with lines not intended for staging but taken from the illuminating prose commentaries that Miller interspersed in the text.


The playwright offers historical context, vivid profiles of major characters and lucid analyses of the Manichean philosophy behind Salem's pitiless theocracy--all gleaned from his intense research into court documents, which still exist in the town records, of the 1692 witchcraft trials. These served as the basis for the play, written partly as a parable of the Red-baiting McCarthy era in the 1950s.

"The Crucible" takes us back to a mad period when an entire society descended into paranoia. Husbands spied on wives, children denounced parents, feuding neighbors settled old scores with fatal accusations, and the highest judicial authorities took charge of a communal cleansing by extracting confessions under torture.

If you failed to admit to consorting with the devil, you were put to death. If you confessed, your life might be spared--but only if you proved your Christian faith by accusing others. The hunt for witches went on, in fact, for 100 days. There were gruesome exorcisms and, in the end, the executions of 19 men and women.

At the center of this maelstrom, Miller has placed a love triangle, extrapolated from small hints in the record, involving three historical people: Abigail Williams, John Proctor and Proctor's wife, Elizabeth.

"I've never done 'Crucible' before," Wheeler said. "But whenever I've seen it, I've always thought it gets off to a very slow start. I never got into the first scene. Part of the reason is that we miss out on this huge event: Tituba, the black Barbados slave, and the girls in the woods. It should be there, of course.

"So I said to the gang, 'What I would like is to start with a dance in the forest.' I realize that when Miller was writing 'Crucible' back in 1952, he didn't have the [theatrical] freedom we have now. But he could have done it. I just think it was a lapse."

Miller has written that the original production on Broadway in 1953 (received by critics with lukewarm enthusiasm) was deadened by the icy hand of his director, the fabled Jed Harris, who insisted on dictatorial prerogatives and blew the cold wind of egomaniac authority into every crevice of the production.

"I knew we had cooled off a very hot play, which therefore was not going to move anyone very deeply," Miller noted in "Timebends," a comprehensive memoir about his professional life. "It was not a performance from within but a kind of conscious rendering."

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