Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Talking with the Director and Star of TheaterWorks' THE CRUCIBLE

Clara Bentz, Phillip Herrington, Amy Garland and Erika Wilson
photo by Josiah Duka
by Gil Benbrook

Arthur Miller set his play The Crucible in a small 17th century New England town, where allegations of witchcraft break out, hysteria runs rampant, suspicion hangs heavy in the air and no one is safe from accusations, even if there is no basis or facts behind them.

Miller wrote The Crucible in 1953, during the period of McCarthyism when many famous American individuals, including Miller, were being accused of being members of the Communist party with the threat of being blacklisted. The play clearly spoke to the accusations that Miller and many of his friends were facing at that time. In our current political climate where the words "witch hunt" and "fake news" are heard almost daily, Miller's play is a chilling reminder that facts matter, hysteria needs to be relieved by facts and reason and that there is still the possibility of what happened to the characters in the play to happen today.

TheaterWorks presents Miller's play in a production that opens this Friday and runs through October 27th. Chris Hamby, the production's director, and Phillip Herrington, who plays John Proctor in the show, sat down in between final rehearsals of the show to answers some questions about the play, this production, and to say why Miller's play is still incredibly relevant today.

For someone who isn't aware of this play, what would you tell them it's about? 

Chris Hamby: "The Crucible is one of the best plays ever written by one of our best American playwrights. Arthur Miller deserves all of the praises you hear about his work. However, this is not your high school production of The Crucible. Even those familiar with the play are going to find new ways to connect with this production."

Phillip Herrington: "It’s set during the Salem Witch Trials, which most people can give historical context to. It focuses on a well-respected man who does everything he can to debunk the hysteria, but is challenged by his own sin. He has had an affair, and therefore considers himself a fraud. For me, this play is about trying to do the right thing in spite of your imperfections. "

Chris, why did you want The Crucible to be a part of TheaterWorks' 2019 / 2020 season? 

Hamby: "The germination of the thought of producing and directing The Crucible came when our costume designer, Cari Smith and myself visited the MET museum exhibit Heavenly Bodies. Seeing the reinterpretation of religious wear turned into high fashion costumes triggered the thought, "This is how I'd stage The Crucible". We not only re-imagined the time period but our playing space. We are performing The Crucible, in a thrust setting on our mainstage. Something very different for TheaterWorks but also something different for the audience experience. The pieces aligned this season to be able to create this alternative play space and provide an immersive, intimate, hopefully fresh production of  the play. "

Did you have previous experience with this play? Was it required reading in high school or have you been in, or directed, it before? 

Hamby: "My only previous experience with the play is as an audience member at the National Theatre in Budapest. It was an incredible production and reinforced to me how strong the storytelling is in this piece. Through the fact that I could enjoy such a wordy drama in a different language and have one of the most profound theatrical experiences of my life - that is good theatre. "

Herrington: "I read the play in high school, but don’t remember it being as good as it is. I have now taught high school Theatre for 14 years, but have never directed it. For me, there has always been a stigma to the play. It’s been done badly by high schools so many times over the last 50 years that I just assume a production at my high school would end up being just a bunch of silly, bonnet-wearing, teenage girls screaming on stage. Hopefully, our show at TheaterWorks will be better than that."

Chris, from the press photo for this show it looks like you've decided to set the plot in more current times that the original setting of the 1690s. What was behind that decision? 

Hamby: "We have actually set the play in an anywhere/nowhere time. I want the play to feel both old and new simultaneously. I want you to question whether this is happening in 1692 or right now. We have taken away Puritan dress, and other references to time in the hopes that the audience will connect in a different way to the story. We have stripped it down to its core so that the gripping power of the story compels you. Conceptually we have set out to create a new echo of The Crucible as you might think of it. "

Phillip Herrington in rehearsals for The Crucible
photo courtesy TheaterWorks
What can you tell us about the character of John Proctor? 

Herrington: "Proctor is a self-righteous man who usually has confidence in his decision making. However, he doubts himself after his affair with Abigail, and his judgement is clouded when faced with the pressure to falsely confess in order to save his own life. He has great guilt for what he has done, and I believe he feels that he deserves what happens to him and his family in some way. I, myself, am a married man with children, and I can imagine that cheating on my wife would make me doubt my judgement about everything. It makes him a wonderfully conflicted man to play on stage."

Hamby: "I think Proctor is a flawed man. Strong but flawed. His moral compass has strayed but he knows right from wrong. Proctor is one of the richest characters every written for the stage. Phillip delivers a brilliant, raw, and visceral performance. It is some of the finest acting I've seen on our stage. Paired with Amy Garland as Elizabeth Proctor, you will be moved. "

Phillip, why did you want to play John?

Herrington:  "He’s sort of one those “bucket-list” characters that everyone knows. It’s been fun telling people that I am playing Proctor. It’s almost like telling people you are playing Hamlet. Most people studied the play in high school, and know that he is an intensely tragic character. I just love playing flawed characters. No one is perfect, but Proctor wants to be so very badly. He gives other characters strength, but has none for himself, until the very end. "

On the surface, The Crucible would appear to focus on ethical problems and how hysteria and false accusations pit good against evil. What do you believe Arthur Miller was trying to say with his play?

Hamby: "I think he was trying to say those things you've mentioned but also to remind us to be wary of buried intentions and to question outbreaks of paranoia. I think the reminder extends to a caution that these events can and most likely will happen again if we let our guard down."

Herrington: "There are many themes, but I look at the play through Proctor’s eyes. I think that is what Miller wants the audience to do. We could all justify Proctor betraying himself and others so that he can live his life as a husband and father. Miller wanted the world to know just how difficult it was during the Red Scare, and how much pressure he himself was under to name his friends and colleagues. With this play, I think that Miller is actually forgiving those who named peopled during the Mccarthy hearings. When Elizabeth tells Proctor, “Whatever you do, it is a good man that does it.” I think Miller is telling us that we cannot judge those that signed themselves to lies under the great pressure of those in power. "

Why do you think this play is still relevant today? 

Hamby: "Regardless of any political affiliations or political views, the play is clearly relevant in our current time and climate. Some might say that modern political factions see a modern day witch hunt occurring. It's fascinating and uncomfortable to see current parallels. "

Herrington: "Miller is clearly warning us to beware of history repeating itself. Anytime we start to point fingers at others in order to declare our own innocence, we are giving in to the paranoia of The Crucible. "

What do you hope audiences will take away from seeing The Crucible at TheaterWorks? 

Herrington: "I hope they go home and fight with the people they saw the show with about what Proctor should or should not have done, if the witches were real or not, if Elizabeth should forgive Proctor or not; you know, all the moral dilemmas that come up in the play. Any great play should do that, and I believe that The Crucible is one of the greatest works in the American theatre legacy because it does just that. "

Hamby: "I hope our audiences see a classic brought to life in a new way. I hope they find themselves reacting to it in whatever way they allow themselves but mostly I hope it makes them think. "

CLICK HERE for more information on The Crucible at TheaterWorks

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