Just what spirits are aligned so that the federal "shutdown" should occur just as Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama opens a play about theocratic officials abusing their power? Gee, Arthur Miller's 1953 witch-hunt classic is ever timeless in its portrayal of paranoia manipulated for selfish ends: sexual, financial, whatever.
Director Tony McKay, associate professor of acting at the drama school, dampens the individual drama of one farmer trapped by the local hysteria into a stylized Greek-like tragedy. This shifts more of the focus onto the true tragic hero brought down by hubris: the Rev. Hale (a sympathetic John Garet Stoker as the would-be villain). Miller's protagonist is, after all — spoiler alert for anyone who managed to avoid the American high school chestnut or its hotter movie versions — redeemed at the end.
While the story-telling is still central, this production evokes a pageant of moods, lights, sounds and use of color among the overwhelming grays. Electric is the only way to describe the moment when Proctor (a stoic Brian Muller), decrying lead witch-accuser Abigail as a whore, pulls off actress Taylor Rose's cap to reveal a flame of red hair. Rose leads the passion parade, with Mary Nepi as her co-conspirator-cum-victim and Bridget Peterson as her implacable target, Proctor's wife.
The individual performances are largely trouble-free despite obvious age disparities between the student actors and some roles. But the performances are less remarkable than is the ensemble filling the stage in seamlessly coordinated movement and sound: McKay conducts his cast like an orchestra, with coaches Catherine Moore (movement) and J.M. Feindel (voice). Jared Patrick Gerbig's towering, angled planks prove to be a quite versatile set as forest, farm, courtroom, prison, etc., with the help of Jordan Harrison's media design and Jackson Gallagher's lighting. Lizzie Donelan's historically realistic costumes add depth to the monochromatic look. Credit, also, to sound designer Rebecca Stoll, stage manager Shannon Henley and dramaturg Emma McFarland.
It's not difficult to argue that The Crucible is timeless and a classic, but its over-familiarity with audiences does, unfortunately, provide uncomfortable chuckles and guffaws. Launching its own centennial celebration, CMU's drama school updates a well-worn vehicle. (Crucible/CMU trivium: The original John Proctor on Broadway in 1953 was Arthur Kennedy, class of '34.)