Witch Hunt 

Classic allegory begs the perennial question, ‘Is the accuser always holy?’

Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible 55 years ago as a none-too-veiled response to McCarthyism and the so-called Red Scare.

Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible 55 years ago as a none-too-veiled response to McCarthyism and the so-called Red Scare. If you’re old enough, or you’ve learned your history, you might very well identify the play’s specific lines of dialogue with those paranoid times. (“Is the accuser always holy?” cries one character in distress.) There are a few creaks in this classic play, though Tennessee Repertory Theatre manages a generally sound new production that flies through the ominous proceedings primarily on the strength of an all-star Nashville cast.

Director René Copeland has assembled a who’s who of local talent, including David Alford, Chip Arnold, Matthew Carlton, Jessejames Locorriere, Michael Montgomery, Eric Pasto-Crosby, Brian Webb Russell and Sam Whited. There are strong familiar women as well, such as Jenny Littleton, Evelyn Blythe and Tia Shearer, along with relative newcomers Delali Potakey and Kahle Reardon. (The cast also features several young women drawn from Nashville public schools.)

Gary Hoff’s magnificent set is so striking that you wish lighting designer Karen Palin had turned up the dimmers. Yet the dark atmosphere certainly lends itself to Miller’s brooding tale based on an outbreak of supposed witchcraft in Salem, Mass., in 1692. Narrow, suspicious and hypocritical Puritan minds look for reasons to explain or correct their misfortunes, and when a tight-knit group of young girls are spotted in the woods behaving unnaturally, the witch hunt is on.

The allegorical ideas—the intrusive power of officialdom, the poisonous nature of hearsay, the cowardly protection of one’s reputation, the dangers of jealousy—are writ large in Miller’s script, which is involving almost all the way through. Yet there are some textual holes—or at least weak depictions—that strain our willing suspension of disbelief. Chief among them are the “witches,” whose histrionic devilment reads as overplayed and not wholly credible.

The Crucible is complex and wordy, and besides witchcraft, it tackles other big ideas such as the separation of church and state, sexual morality, corruption in the justice system, even love and honor. When the Rep’s cast is at full throttle, which is often (due to Copeland’s good pacing of the lengthy script), it’s very rewarding stuff.

Alas, both climax and denouement (complete with stark gallows imagery) seem to get lost in all the point-counterpoint of the many characters’ motivations. Plus an important later scene between Alford and Littleton is played so cozily and so sotto voce that we hardly understand a word they say.

This Crucible is sometimes just that—a severe trial. But there are fine performances from almost all the players—Russell in particular turns in some notable work as an aging landowner—and the big-canvas presentation is highly professional in every way.

Teacher’s tale

The tragic explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986, not only put an end to schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe’s dreams, but also emblazoned her name on the American consciousness. Jane Anderson’s Defying Gravity, currently onstage in its Nashville premiere, serves as a poignant testament to the legacy of McAuliffe and, by extension, her six ill-fated crewmates.

McAuliffe is never mentioned by name in the play, but to anyone old enough to remember Challenger, she is immediately recognizable, brought warmly to life here by Sara Sharpe. It’s an episodic script, offering us a portrait of the serious-minded McAuliffe doing her teaching and juggling the demands of NASA celebrity. The key relationship is that of McAuliffe and her daughter, Elizabeth, played with a mix of innocence and pain by Keri Pisapia. Pisapia enacts the role both as a child (only 6 at the time of the disaster) and as an adult who’s still grappling with her mother’s death and symbolic status.

Anderson’s approach to the story is somewhat impressionistic, which helps explain the presence of painter Claude Monet (played by Pat Reilly), who appears within scenes as an essentially hopeful commentator. He also forges an acquaintance with a retired married couple (Jim Wright and Adele Akin), who snip at each other with familiar humor. Depicted watching the shuttle’s takeoff, their faces reflect the universal horror of all who witnessed Challenger’s demise.

Alan Lee is believable as a NASA techie who feels pangs of guilt about his role in the postponement of the shuttle launch. (This incident mirrors the actual facts: service personnel were unable to effect repairs on the orbiter’s hatch, though the mission had been plagued by other delays and technical problems throughout.) His dire feelings are realistically countered by the more fatalistic pronouncements of Alicia Ridley, who portrays the bartender at a local hangout frequented by NASA employees.

Maryanna Clarke’s direction is straightforward. Simple set pieces hint at different locales—home, school, restaurant, the viewing area for the launch—and actors appear in ones, twos and threes as the scenes play out piecemeal. It’s not a particularly dramatic staging, but there are touches of welcome whimsy in the writing, and a keen sense of memory ultimately prevails.

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