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'The Crucible' at Bag&Baggage fills the big stage with full-throttle drama

CRUCIBLE TITUBA.JPG Gary Strong as Thomas (left to right), Jeremy Southard as Parris, Alexandria Morgan as Tituba and Jake Street as Hale perform in "The Crucible." (Casey Campbell Photography) Print Email >Holly Johnson | For The Oregonian/OregonLive By Holly Johnson | For The Oregonian/OregonLive The Oregonian

on September 07, 2014 at 11:08 AM, updated September 07, 2014 at 4:15 PM

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Get a group of teen-age girls together in the woods, spark hysteria, let imaginations fly, and you've got trouble brewing.

This is the premise in Arthur Miller's classic 1953 drama, "The Crucible," about the Salem witch hunts of the 1600s. The playwright wrote it as an allegory in response to McCarthyism in the 1950s. Here, questions about mob mentality, religious and political extremism, tolerance and righteousness whirl together in a pitched storm, as paranoia rises and innocent people must deal with extremists who seek social control (nothing we don't know about today).

Performed at Hillsboro's Bag&Baggage Theatre under Scott Palmer's sharp-eyed direction and attention to a certain verbal lyricism, this extraordinary play also poses the question: How do we respond to fear? It's a strong motivator that can goad us to action, cripple us, or make us loving and compassionate.

There are attributes to shaping a play into a renovated moviehouse, and Parker gets the most out of the tall, deep space that the Venetian Theatre offers. He places actors behind shadowy scrims, sometimes using bodies to create designs. There is a sense of engulfment, of being swallowed up, within this dark, roomy set, with simple lights on the actors.

Set designer Megan Wilkerson uses enlarged projections of early woodcuts of images of the devil, witches, people being tortured. Not only are they artistic and evocative, but they enhance time and place.

CRUCIBLEUSE.JPGView full sizeArianne Jacques as Abigail Williams, Peter Schuyler as John Proctor, and Jessica Geffen as Elizabeth ProctorCasey Campbell Photography 

Highlights: There are many in this carefully crafted, large-cast production, which features high school students from Hillsboro working backstage and in the cast as part of a pre-professional training program launched by the company. The acting of the major players provides highlights, particularly scenes involving hysteria. The horrors of persecution come alive in the story of simple farmer John Proctor (Peter Schuyler), who has had a brief dalliance with 18-year-old Abigail Williams (Arianne Jacques), a fanciful, vindictive girl who claims she's dealt with the devil. The scenes between these two, and Proctor's scenes with his pregnant wife, Elizabeth (the marvelous Jessica Geffen), are highlights where intimacy comes alive. Also impressive were brief scenes with the talented Pat Lach as Rebecca Nurse, a true voice of reason.

Low Notes: The use of the Lancashire or North Country accent (think Mrs. Slocombe on "Are You Being Served?") for most of the characters is a great idea, authenticating that historical period. But not everyone could carry off the dialect, alas. Still, this is a small complaint. I liked the idea. Interestingly, Lancashire is another area with a rich history of witch hunts (if you travel there today, you'll see images of witches on local buses).

Most valuable performer: Schuyler virtually surrounds himself with all elements of Proctor. He's a rock. He's not tall or imposing, but he exudes a power, insight and compassion that draws you to him (his accent is spot on). He's the protagonist we're following closely, and Schuyler makes him burn, bridle, crumple and fight for clarity and justice in an extremist hell hole of paranoia run by self-righteous people at the top.

Line of the night: "The little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!"

Best moment: When the teen-age girls, led by conniving Abigail, start to chant and echo poor Mary Warren (Madeline Ogden) who's on the witness stand. Creepy.

Biggest surprise: Again, the use of the accent, which mostly sounded authentic.

In the final scene, some images of modern-day injustices fueled by mob mentality were projected upstage. Most effective indeed.

What: "The Crucible"

Where: The Venetian Theatre, 253 E. Main St., Hillsboro

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday; through Sept. 28

Tickets: $18-$30

Contact: www.bagnbaggage.org or 503-345-9590

-- Holly Johnson

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