In the Garden of Evil

One girl’s lie to avoid trouble for dabbling in a voodoo ceremony unleashes a swathe of evil upon the city of Salem.  Under the hysteria of witchcraft, secret hatreds and jealousies are vented through baseless accusations sending innocent victims to the gallows.  Will a farmer burdened by his own secret sin be able to halt the onslaught?  Find out in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible currently playing at the Barn Players.

I have been involved with theatre for nearly 22 years.  I’ve acted, directed, stage managed, worked on crew, run lights and sounds, and reviewed shows.  Having experienced all of these different aspects of theatre has helped me to develop a sixth sense about plays and I’ve usually got a good feel for the quality of a show as I head into it.  As I walked into the theatre for tonight’s production of The Crucible, I had a feeling that this was going to be a pretty good show.  However, I must admit that my sixth sense was wrong.

This show wasn’t “pretty good”.  It was beyond amazing!!  It may very well be the very best drama I’ve ever seen staged.

Few writers could pen a tragedy as well as Arthur Miller due to his understanding of the human condition.  In The Crucible, he presents humanity at its basest and its stupidest.  It’s hard to fathom people being depraved enough to lie about their neighbors in order to steal their property or to satisfy a hidden grudge.  But it’s even harder to realize that supposedly intellectual judges could fail to see through such a farrago of nonsense and deception and forget that justice means innocent until proven guilty and not the other way around.

The Barn Players was fortunate to have David Martin helming this show because his direction was transcendent.  He brought Miller’s story to life in its full glory.  He not only understood the story’s darkness, but he also found the glimmers of hope and humor buried in the tale and brought them to light as well.  His staging was impeccable and made full use of the entire theatre.  You couldn’t punch a hole in the quality of his cast’s acting.  He also did double duty on sound design which was so apropos from the creepy, haunting music heading into the first scene to the relentless drumbeat to close out the show.

This is one of those shows where I’d like to do a write up on every single actor, but, for the sake of brevity, let me assure you that there wasn’t a weak link in the lot.  Each and every one was fully immersed in the story which only brought the audience deeper and deeper into it.  But I want to especially note the work of Charles Christesson who brought intelligence, levity, and heartbreak into the character of Giles Corey; Scott Shaw’s Rev. Samuel Parris, the “man of God” more concerned with power and reputation than faith; and Emma Cook’s portrayal of Mary Warren, a servant stretched to the edge of sanity due to being the rope in a spiritual tug of war between John Proctor and Abigail Williams.

I was particularly impressed with what Michael Juncker dug out of the role of Deputy Governor Danforth.  He plays Danforth as a man of strong, if misguided, character.  He truly believes in the cause of justice and honestly believes he is doing his part to rid Salem of witchcraft.  Yet his appalling cluelessness is sickening as he can’t see through the histrionics of the accusers, puts the letter of the law above its spirit, and claims to be doing the will of God, yet ignores the undisputed expert on witchcraft and true man of faith, John Hale.

Jessica Franz’s take on Elizabeth Proctor is as strong as it is tragic.  Ms Franz well communicates the sickliness of the recovering Elizabeth and ably portrays the duality of warmth and iciness in the character.  Elizabeth wants to love and trust her husband, but has difficulty doing so due to an infidelity on his part.  When her warmth finally wins out, it makes her horror at dooming John Proctor due to a lie she concocts to protect his honor all the more believable and heartrending.

I loved Phil Howard’s take on Rev. John Hale.  Howard’s Hale is a good man.  He is a decent man.  Sadly, when all is said and done, he is also a broken man.  Howard presents Hale as a truly devout man dedicated to God and ending the scourge of witchcraft.  But he is also an intelligent and just man who is dedicated to discovering the truth more than anything.   Howard’s anguish is palpable when he realizes the truth behind the Salem witch trials and tries to mitigate the damage by persuading accused witches to give false confessions which will preserve their lives, but excommunicate them.

Abigail Williams truly is a witch, but not in the magical sense.  In Lauren Hambleton’s capable hands, you will experience one of the greatest villains I have seen on stage.  Ms Hambleton’s Abigail is unspeakably disgusting and diabolically clever.  What begins as a simple lie to avoid punishment for participating in a voodoo ceremony evolves into a cunning plan to rid herself of her perceived rival in Elizabeth Proctor for the love of John Proctor, with whom she had an affair, and a chance to revenge herself on the “hypocrites” (though some truly are) of the town.  Evil just oozes from Ms Hambleton’s pores and I really appeciated the smarts she brought to Abigail who enhances her lies through information she gleans from Rev. Hale’s questions and books.

Andy Penn’s work as John Proctor is a tour de force performance.  Penn brilliantly essays the walking paradox that is Proctor.  He is a good man, but is bowed by the guilt of his infidelity with Abigail Williams.  He believes in God, but hates the hypocrisy of his church.  He is willing to make a false confession to save his life partially because he doesn’t want to have his death be a lie about him being a saint.  Penn provides a clinic in acting as he finds beats within beats within beats as he creates a man you will admire for his strength and pity for his weakness.

Steven Ansel James has prepared a wonderful bare bones set with its extended stage, docks, and chalk drawings of trees, heretical words, and occult symbols.  Chuck Cline’s lights gorgeously animate all of the emotional moments of the show.  Jenny Knecht’s costumes perfectly reflected the Puritan time period.

At one point, Rev. Hale wonders if the devil has come to Salem.  The sad truth is that he did because the people of Salem opened the doors and invited him in by succumbing to their own evil desires.  But even in all the darkness and mayhem, Arthur Miller still manages to show where there is a kernel of faith, hope, and decency, the devil can still be overcome.

This play is storytelling at its zenith.  If you want to see compelling, powerful, thought provoking drama, then you need to buy a ticket and see The Crucible.  It’s the best thing going in theatre this summer.

The Crucible plays at the Barn Players through July 30.  Showtimes are Fri-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $18 ($15 for seniors 65+ & $12 for students with ID and groups of 10 or more).  There will be an Industry Night performance on July 24 at 7:30pm.  All tickets for this performance will be $12 at the door.  For tickets, visit the Barn Players at www.thebarnplayers.org or call 913-432-9100.  The Barn Players is located at 6219 Martway in Mission, KS.

Matters of Faith

“Sometimes it’s hard to tell which voice is God’s and which is our own wishful self.”—Elizabeth

This quotation is the central theme of Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, currently playing at the Blue Barn Theatre.

I don’t get to say this very often, but this show is absolutely perfect.  From top of the line direction, pluperfect acting, a gorgeous church set designed by Martin Scott Marchitto, a dandy little choir, and an intelligent script rippling with multifaceted characters and pristine dialogue, this show is nothing but tens.

Lucas Hnath rose to the challenge when he wrote the story of Pastor Paul, a megachurch pastor who rocks the foundation of his congregation when he announces there is no such place as hell from the pulpit.  From that shellshocking declaration, Hnath’s script proceeds to tackle the consequences of that belief.

The power of Hnath’s script is that, aside from asking potent questions about faith, it approaches the subject matter in very non-judgmental fashion.  There is neither rancor nor anger between the characters about Pastor Paul’s extreme change of heart.  There is only confusion, debate, and discussion as the multiple sides try to understand each other or make another see their point of view.  Because of this very wise approach this is a play for everybody from the devout to the uncertain to the non-believer.

Anthony Clark-Kaczmarek departs from his recent high energy comedic roles with a subtle, raw, and revealing performance as Pastor Paul which is certain to put him into the running for Best Actor come awards season.  Clark-Kaczmarek’s command of the dialogue is nothing short of astonishing as he delivers his lines with a soft-spoken, nearly hypnotic voice that seems to make every syllable an emotional beat of its own.  Clark-Kaczmarek’s interpretation of Pastor Paul is almost Christlike as he is a man of God who is leading his flock down a radical new path just as Jesus did.  The question is whether he is leading his people to Heaven or to Hell.

Clark-Kaczmarek’s performance is extraordinary as he navigates the many emotional twists and turns Pastor Paul takes on his trek and he does it with such humanness.  Even with Pastor Paul’s new vision, he still wrestles with doubt about the nature, possibly even the existence, of God.

Raydell Cordell III’s performance as Joshua, Pastor Paul’s associate pastor, is a feat of underplayed genius.  Cordell’s Joshua is the hardest hit by Pastor Paul’s new message as he was brought to Jesus by the pastor and believes acceptance of Christ as a personal savior is the one and only way to salvation.  Cordell brilliantly eschews the easy road of anger for a sad and deep disappointment in Pastor Paul.  He openly challenges Pastor Paul’s belief, but does so with an understated frustration which is best exemplified when he and Pastor Paul engage in a debate over interpretation of Bible verses.

Despite his disappointment with Pastor Paul, Cordell also infuses a great loyalty into Joshua’s character.  He never gives up on Pastor Paul, even going so far as refusing to supplant him as lead pastor and sharing a story about the death of his mother in a last ditch effort to convince Pastor Paul he is on the wrong path.  So earnest is Cordell’s performance that one and all will be deeply moved.

Bill Hutson does no wrong with his turn as Jay, an elder in Pastor Paul’s church.  Hutson’s portrayal of Jay is that of a diplomat.  He supports Pastor Paul due to their long friendship, but doesn’t agree with his ideas.  Hutson ably depicts a man who may be on the cusp of losing his faith.  Yes, he does believe in God, but his position on the Board of Directors for the church has had him focused on secular matters rather than spiritual ones and Pastor Paul’s proclamations just may push him away from faith once and for all.

Kaitlyn McClincy rolls a strike in her Blue Barn debut as Jenny, a congregant in Pastor Paul’s church.  Ms McClincy’s performance is as heartbreaking as it is illuminating.  Her Jenny had nothing before she found Pastor Paul’s church.  Divorced and broke, she found salvation, aid, and family with Pastor Paul.  In a heart-wrenching monologue which will have tears falling, Ms McClincy talks about having a faith so fervent that she tithed 20% of her meager earnings because she loved God so much and believed in Pastor Paul so much.  When she vocally wonders whether all of Pastor Paul’s good words were simply part of an elaborate con game, my heart shattered for her.

Jill Anderson provides a unique twist on the role of the minister’s wife with her portrayal of Elizabeth.  Ms Anderson’s Elizabeth does not meekly follow her husband down his rather difficult road.  She is strong.  She is smart.  And she does not accept her husband’s new way of thinking.  Ms Anderson gives the audience some interesting food for thought with Elizabeth’s logical argument about the inequality of her marriage with Pastor Paul as he always kept her in the dark about his questions, fears, and messages and is mesmerizing when she is willing to try to save the church by countering Pastor Paul’s message in her own Bible study group.

Susan Clement-Toberer may have topped herself with her direction of this piece.  The staging is magnificent.  The pacing of the story is rock solid.  The coaching of her actors is of championship caliber and she smoothly moves from beat to beat to beat, making the most out of each and every moment.

The Christians is the epitome of transformative theatre.  This show is going to give you a lot to think about.  Wherever you lie on the spectrum of belief in God, your beliefs are going to be challenged and that is a gift only the best theatre can grant you.  As two shows are already sold out, be certain to get a ticket as tonight’s nearly full house is an indicator of the monster hit this show will be.

The Christians plays at the Blue Barn Theatre through April 17.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 6pm.  There is no show on Easter Sunday (March 27) and the March 26 and April 2 shows are sold out.  Tickets cost $30 for adults and $25 for students, seniors (65+), T.A.G. members, and groups of 10 or more.  For reservations, call 402-345-1576 from 10am-4pm Mon-Fri or visit the Blue Barn website at www.bluebarn.org.  The Blue Barn Theatre is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.