Theatre review: Instead of a searing critique of society, Cracked Crucible comes across as a soap drama

Review Theatre

THE CRUCIBLE

Toy Factory Productions

Drama Centre Theatre/Thursday

Staging The Crucible is itself a crucible in which a director's skill and an ensemble's cohesiveness is tested.

Unfortunately, a herculean effort by Toy Factory does not quite cover the cracks in its production of American playwright Arthur Miller's heavyweight classic about a 17th-century Salem witch hunt.

Miller tackles a huge spectrum of issues, from the shaky structure of the legal system to the hysteria of fundamentalism to the shifting moral interpretations of truth. Director Rayann Condy ambitiously takes the script on, with confused results.

In her hands, the play feels less like a scathing critique of society than a squabbly domestic drama with a lot of one-note declarations and actors stomping about on stage, gesticulating wildly.

The 1953 play begins with a voodoo ritual gone horribly wrong in Puritanical Massachusetts. The girls implicated as witches quickly denounce people in the town to save their own skins, lighting a tinderbox of fear and desperation that inevitably ends in tragedy.

Farmer John Proctor (Rodney Oliveiro) gets tangled up in this web of lies when he realises that his former lover Abigail (Jean Toh), who is pulling the strings of the village's terror, has a personal vendetta in mind - she wants to be rid of his wife, Elizabeth (Julie Wee).

Miller's taut script of twists and turns manages to keep the drama compelling despite the choppy pacing. But while the work was intellectually engaging, I found it incredibly difficult to conjure up any sort of emotional resonance with any of the characters.

Gone was the menacing chill of the herd mentality and the horror of frenzied accusations, replaced by frustrated hand-wringing and just too many furrowed brows. The accent work in the play was a distracting mixed bag of clipped British and out-of-place Singaporean inflections.

Many of the characters, all emphatically colour-coded in their bizarre ombre costumes, came across as creaky caricatures as they each defined themselves with a single, all-encompassing personality trait.

Reverend Parris (Timothy Nga), for instance, became the hapless buffoon, and Reverend Hale (Marc Valentine) an over-zealous evangelist.

Oliveiro only seemed to slip into character right at the play's climactic end, when his John Proctor was forced to emote beyond the ranges of angst and anguish.

It did not help that many of the most gripping scenes were rudely interrupted by the melancholic tinkle of the piano, shattering the tension and making the moment feel like the overture to a daytime soap opera or a weepy Korean drama.

But there were some bright flashes, especially among the young women in the cast. Toh plays the antagonist Abigail to the hilt with petulant teenage jealousy mixed in with steely, calculated manipulation.

Wee does her best in playing two very different characters, Elizabeth Proctor and the crotchety Ann Putnam - she does better as the touchingly steadfast "good wife", Elizabeth.

Special mention must also go to Sharda Harrison, who brought out a nuanced range of expressions and emotions in the Proctors' servant Mary Warren, managing to be proud, fearful and deeply wounded all at once.

It is a strong testament to Miller's work that the play is still able to speak to audiences half a century later with its resonant passages on the subversion of justice and truth.

While the play, at the time, was an allegory of McCarthyism and anti-communist finger-pointing in the United States, its many lessons remain relevant today: the danger of letting the masses viciously condemn individuals out of fear and distrust, and the need to stay true to one's moral compass.

Literature and drama educators should find this production a useful teaching tool that brings a period drama to life. But this Crucible never brought its contents to a furious boil. Rather, it felt like a slow, lukewarm simmer.

corriet@sph.com.sg