Shreveport Little Theater and Heather Hooper teamed up to bring Arthur Miller's frustratingly resonant McCarthy Era masterpiece to life in a brilliant, on-stage production that only the deep south can truly deliver to form. Though at-times high-school-esque in cue and oration, local performers quickly descended from their traditionally contemporary sets and yoga-panted characters into an immersive frenzy of intrigue, confusion, and madness. Needing little artistic license to recreate the dialects and scenic commonalities of religious social influence, Hooper's cast takes conservative advantage of that stereotypical southern twang so often characterized as a bane to artistic and intellectual culture, and delivers a powerful (and disturbingly familiar) rendition of an age-old American theme: Persecution.
The story surrounds a volley of dreadful allegations waged by a spiteful and morally unhinged debutante, leading a band of viscous conspirators against an assorted arrangement of other citizens, namely Goody Nurse and Goody Proctor. The tension builds from a confrontation between an angry father, who happens to be the coolly-received new religious authority, and his wayward daughter, recently caught engaging in licentious behavior with others in the woods at night. The threat is a charge of witchcraft that would be his ruin in a Protestant community more preoccupied with Satanic conspiracy than with the rigors of due process and rational evaluation. To complicate matters, the young girl has recently had an affair with a local farmer: John Proctor, (as portrayed by the intense Stephen Scarlatto). Proctor's wife, according to his mistress, is the cause of a slanderous campaign against her honor. When Proctor scorns her, and himself, for a difficult but sincere sense of fidelity, she unleashes her fury on Proctor's wife, his friend's wife, and a host of others from whom she has perceived insult or injury. Her accusations are soon echoed by others as one malicious act of irresponsibility snowballs into a flood of fear-driven attacks motivated by everything from miscommunication to long brooding personal rivalry. In Act One, the whole damned town loses its mind.
The most evocative and challenging element in this story is the ever-present specter of the Devil. The tide of complaints and contrived narratives produces a general sense of self-affirming hysteria. As each new charge of Satanic conspiracy crashes through families and friendships, others become more likely, and many fold more confident in their own suspicions that the devil was, in-fact, walking among them. The situation quickly reaches critical mass as this chain reaction spirals out of control. In the late nineties, Marilyn Manson rocketed to chart supremacy with a campaign of vividly anti-religious performance art and overtly hostile, lewd, and offensive lyrics. The basis of Manson's success, (and vitriol) was the exploitation of the American fascination with morbidity, excess, indulgence, anger, and rage. His debut album features a song called Wrapped In Plastic, and it contains this line: “Fear of the Beast is calling it near.” It is the very essence of this sentiment that Miller, and now Hooper and Scarlatto have labored to flesh out for a modern audience. People who had little reason to fear each other were quickly driven by a few deceptively wicked personalities to commit atrocities against one another out of fear of something that, from a modern secular point of view, does not exist in the first place.
The second act is a gauntlet of muddled reasoning, emotional outbursts, dehuminization, tyrranical authority, and vengeance, from which precedes only dispare and tragedy. Proctor must confront his own imperfect soul in order to save his beloved wife and friends. He must effectively be purified by redemptive fire before facing judgment, and ultimately, the greatest human sacrifice. Proctor's humanism is perfectly countered by the piss-and-vinegar Absolutism delivered by iron-fisted baritone Courty Loggins, who channels Nurse Ratchet in her relentless incarnation of Deputy Governor Danforth, who embodies Salem's “Highest Authority” in this crisis. She made my skin crawl, and I loved every minute of it! She is cold, corrupt, and impenetrably confident as she crushes the souls of Salem's timeless characters, yet she is also a firestorm of blistering fury and scorched earth to watch.
Loggins and Scarlatto are supported by an amiable cast of hard working personalities, both in the story and also on the stage. Lorna Street Dobson combines Poison Ivy, Maleficent, Fatal Attraction, and Lolita into a sprite-like, evil-little-shit Abigail Williams, who fiercely re-enforces the old father-son adage about what never to put in crazy. Her counterpoint in the play is Elizabeth proctor, played by beautiful and strong Katie Gilbert. Gilbert's is a tough role; she must occupy several emotional spaces through the course of the story. Her challenge is to sustain credible movement from stoic, suffering wife, to pissed off, indignant woman who will not be made a fool of. But that's just the first few minutes! Gilbert demonstrates character and courage contextually superior to her husband when she offers up herself freely to resolve a conflict that began with him refusing to offer up his pride. From here, the audience must witness a broken woman to whom others still appeal to solve their problems and save themselves. Without her natural mix of feminine softness, solid backbone, and maternal beauty, the device of John Proctor's transformation would be insubstantial. Instead, she presents the figure of Mary, simultaneously vulnerable and un-corruptible, for whom Proctor must suffer to set right the insanity of the world.
The many faces of religion are also assembled in this unique cast. Erik Champney gave a convincingly charming rendition Reverend Hale, the bumbling but bright eyed man of faith, able to view the world through the eyes of reason when the situation demands, but wholly enraptured by the service of the lord. Opposite Champney, Robin Smith plays the paranoid, delusional Reverend Samuel Paris, who seeks to preserve his holy office by hiding the truth from those he has been sent to lead. Bedeviling them both is John Bogan in the guise of Thomas Putnam, an Evangelizing land-crook bent on robbing the whole town blind while leading the moralistic charge against the devil himself.
Hooper's choreography and casting produced a hit, rightfully still packing the auditorium days into the show. Her adaptation of Miller's Orwellian vision is all too real. She does not lean upon elaborate set construction, costumes, or other sensational stagecraft. Instead, she seems to send her characters into scenes like soldiers taking a hill. Scarlatto and I used to have sleepovers at friend's houses. I watched him deliver an equally impressive Aladdin more than ten years ago when we were children. And in spite of our front-row seats, stage-right, when he went to his seat not four feet away from me to await the outcome of Goody Proctor's examination, he may as well have been on television. I could have reached out and tied his shoe laces together, but I couldn't tell at all if he even knew I was there. When Abigail Williams stole her sordid kiss from him in the first act, audience members contemplated calling social services. When Hale just couldn't take it anymore, and went nuclear in the climax, his frustration was real.
The show deals with some pretty heady themes, even for today's avaunt-guard twenty-somethings. Anyone in doubt about the value of modern due process will walk away considering putting a lawyer on retainer and joining the NRA. People of faith are reminded of the still difficult contradictions inherent in pluralistic society. Horny teenagers walk away considering the perks of a career in theater. But the most important part of this experience is the reflection that it was all inspired by real events, not just in seventeenth and eighteenth century protestant colonialism, but much more recently, during the era of political witch hunts under the ever-present specter of dripping-red Communism, when Miller wrote the play. The subject matter strikes a peculiar chord in the American psyche: the backbone. As citizens we are reminded of our dignity, and of the fragility of society. Contempt, Greed, and Nepotism are infectious and toxic. Trust is not more than an accumulation of favorable experiences, and can be destroyed by a single compromise. Once the wound is open, the contagious disease can spread like wildfire. Suspicion is an ailment for which there is no cure but catharsis.
Thanks are in order to Miller, Hooper, and the Shreveport Little Theater for this epic foray into the darkest corners of our identity. A triumphant success!
Image Source: http://theatre.columbusstate.edu/images/1.JPG
Image Source: http://theatre.columbusstate.edu/images/1.JPG