Toil and trouble

Witch hunting drives the plot of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, and it's a practice, director Rayann Condy opines, that is not as distant from our daily lives as we might think. At the forefront of Toy Factory's latest production are the foibles of human nature – the sniping, finger-pointing blame games society indulges in, especially in today's comment-first, think-later social media landscape.


All this makes The Crucible an easy play to relate to, even though it is steeped in oppressive religiosity and set in a God-fearing community governed by the church. Condy does a commendable job of unpacking the text, bringing to life the 17th century small town of Salem that is rocked by murmurings of witchcraft.


Whether witchcraft actually exists among them is never confirmed, but all it takes is the "unnatural" illness of 10-year-old Betty Parris (Georgia Fun), and the townsfolk are set off. Julie Wee does double duty as Ann Putnam and Elizabeth Proctor, and she is impressive as the former, a shrill and superstitious woman who has had seven babies die in childbirth. Wee is often typecast in girl-next-door roles (as in W!LD RICE's recent production ofRomeo and Juliet) but as an older, embittered woman her physicality is spot on: Putnam is all hunched shoulders and pinched waist as she prattles on about her stubborn belief in witchcraft. As Elizabeth, Wee is also capable, peeling back her stoicism as the God-fearing farmer's wife to reveal bitterness at her husband's marital indiscretions. She unveils the tiny cracks by layers – the slightest flinch at John's touch, the anxious smoothing of her skirt, turning just slightly away from his kiss – and we watch the burden grow with their every exchange, feeling our hearts grow heavy with hers. Even in her private hurt, Wee's Elizabeth is quiet and steadfast, her pain a slow burn.


Condy bides her time with this buildup, which culminates only midway through act two, when Elizabeth's symbolic act of lying before the town court demonstrates her choice of love over religious duty. It is a powerful scene, with Wee erupting with a surprising intensity that was never previously apparent. Wee transitions well from inscrutable homemaker to hysterical partner in a brief instant, her desperation almost a relief to witness as she humanizes the impassive Elizabeth. But while the emotional payoff may not have worked as well without Wee initially establishing Elizabeth's demure constitution, tighter pacing would probably have resulted in a more satisfying character arc. Rodney Oliveiro as John Proctor faces a similar problem. His Proctor is the lone voice of dissent – and some would say reason – among the frenetic witch-hunt, as he tries to orchestrate an unveiling of the truth, even at great personal cost.


Oliveiro takes his time to get into the role, and like Wee he really only achieves a suitable climax towards the latter part of act two. Although I rooted for his commitment to truth and honour, for much of the play his endeavours felt like they were sputtering towards an apex that would never arrive. When, for instance, he grabbed housemaid Mary Warren (Sharda Harrison) by the neck, forcing her to go public with her knowledge of witchcraft (or lack thereof), it lacked conviction and came across trite. It is a shame, because once he found his groove, Proctor's closing monologue about moral courage and preserving his good name felt like a small victory for the man, despite his numerous flaws. After spending most of the play listening to Oliveiro waffle on unconvincingly about the truth, it was a welcome change to finally be able to share in his principles.


As demonstrated by Wee and Oliveiro's characters, Condy's direction packs the emotional punches too tightly into act two, and she would have done well to keep the earlier action taut. More crucial than the pacing, though, is The Crucible'soverall focus. In act one it dedicates much time to the (oft-baseless) accusations of the townsfolk, a comment on man's inclination to project their inherent prejudices onto another. It is one of playwright Arthur Miller's messages that is most relevant to our times, and Condy addresses in her director's message. But her vision lacks continuity - in act two a mixed bag of issues emerges, like the individual honour that Proctor champions, as well as how easily a man can shift his perception of truth – and Condy's original message gets lost in the clutter.


Still, the play is not without its bright sparks. Newcomer Jean Toh playing the young but ruthless Abigail Williams is one of them. Williams is the ringleader of the girls suspected of dabbling in black magic and a key instigator of Salem's witch-hunt. She is a complex character – on one hand a child, on the other a vengeful vixen – and Toh hits many of the right notes with both. Amongst the other girls and the townsfolk, she plays Williams as confident to the point of brashness, showing how her forceful persuasiveness makes her both feared and admired. Toh's cool calculation, unfazed even when challenged, is intimidating despite her petite stature – it is no surprise that she is able to run circles around the town authorities during the witch trials.


Toh is so convincing in her viciousness that it is easy to forget her youth. The only vulnerability we glimpse of her is during exchanges with John, with whom Williams has shared one amorous night. Here, Toh's performance falters at times, sliding into petulance and foot-stamping as John, guilty and reformed, tries to shake her off. Her childish pleas are believable because they remind us of Williams' age, but I was less convinced of any genuine love she held for John. Still, there is a naivete about Toh's performance that evokes sympathy for her jilted character, even as we may decry her cunning.


The action plays out on designer Chris Chua's set made up almost entirely of stacked wooden crates that depict homes, nature, and a prison. The set evolves as the plot progresses with a few pieces being elevated and removed at a time, but apart from the well-placed lighting changes to mark the mood and time of day, I felt that the moveable set was not used to its full potential. Often the shifting of crates did not create a new structure, and instead opened up the acting space so it eventually felt like the actors were performing on a stage within a stage. All this took place as the plot slowly grew more oppressive, so the movement of the set felt a little out of sync with the action that was unfolding.


Costume designers Saksit Pisalasupongs and Phisit Jangnarasin, on the other hand, incorporated the theme of deceit well into the outfits, adorning them with snaking webs of artifice the characters could not escape. Men, women and children stood starched and pressed in high collars and full sleeves, a nod to the puritanical society of the times. Each was shaded carefully, with serpentine vines weaving along the bottom half of skirts, sleeves and blazers. The resulting ensemble worked, its visual clutter reflecting the swampy half-truths of the town's obsession.


At two and a half hours, The Crucible is a lengthy play, weighted down by some saggy exchanges along the way. Still, it is a timely rumination on the dangers of groupthink among authority and a justice system subject to outdated ideals. If the next time we are presented with a difficult choice we are compelled to 'show honour now, show a stony heart' rather than succumb to the popular opinion of baseless hatred, then The Crucible will be a tale always relevant.


Originally posted on Inkpotreviews here.