There probably are some theater patrons who look upon Sacramento Theatre Co.’s Young Professionals Conservatory — school-age actors who study their craft and perform on stage with seasoned professionals — as nothing more than a gimmick to boost revenues and pack the theater with family and friends.
Those naysayers could not be more wrong.
These young conservatory members have proven time and again to be worthy performers who have as much if not more energy, emotion and commitment to the integrity of productions as the adult professionals they work alongside.
The latest demonstration is Sacramento Theatre’s season-opening production of “The Crucible,” in which four of these talented youngsters — and one accomplished alumna of the program — save this iconic work of American theater from disaster.
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Playwright Arthur Miller based his historically accurate and timeless play on the Salem witch trials of late-17th century Massachusetts. It is a drama rich with fear, anger, mass hysteria, scapegoating, backstabbing, youthful indiscretion, adultery and, ultimately death by hanging.
Miller raises age-old philosophical questions about the tragedy of human nature and the self-righteousness of religious and societal leaders. When a group of young girls and an older chaperone are caught dancing naked in the woods, they are accused of conjuring up spirits and suspected of witchcraft.
Shaken and vengeful, they turn and point the finger of blame at others. And with frightening quickness, this seemingly close-knit community unravels, and nearly two dozen are eventually put on trial for practicing witchcraft.
The inscrutable twist? Those who confess live; those who fight the charges are soon convicted and hanged. Miller made no secret of the fact that he wrote “The Crucible” to shine a critical light on the “Red Scare” episode of the early 1950s, when Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a Wisconsin Republican, beckoned government officials and Hollywood stars, musicians and writers to the U.S. Capitol to grill them about alleged Communist activities and to coerce them into naming suspected “fellow travelers.”
In today’s political turbulence, whenever President Trump or one of his supporters spouts “witch hunt” to describe the ongoing FBI investigation into Russian influence into the 2016 presidential election, it is a tip of the hat to Miller’s timeless and powerful tale.
Miller’s script still crackles with heat, passion, humor and cutting political and religious commentary. And yet, much of that is lost in the hands of Sacramento Theatre’s production.
It is marred by many adult performers who seemingly lack the inspiration or effort to project their characters, voices or motivations to the far reaches of Sacramento Theatre’s main playhouse. Many lines are delivered rapid-fire and in voices that are swallowed up before reaching the audience in the middle and back rows, rendering important chunks of Miller’s brilliant dialogue unintelligible.
One missed opportunity is the relationship of James Louis Wagner and Shannon Mahoney, who play John and Elizabeth Proctor, respectively, a couple at the center of the witchcraft investigation and, more importantly, in a strained marriage for months since Mahoney’s character discovered that Wagner’s character was cheating on her.
But Wagner, and especially Mahoney, lack the fire, pain and genuine contrition of a husband trying to earn his wife’s acceptance, and of a wife scorned. As a contrast, Wagner’s scenes with Abbey Campbell, who plays his love interest, Abigail Williams, come across unevenly.
That’s because Campbell’s Abigail is lusty and captivating as the temptress trying to rekindle an affair, while Wagner’s John Proctor seems listless and dispassionate, even while deflecting her advances. Campbell, it is worth noting, is a graduate of Sacramento Theatre’s Young Professionals Conservatory. She, along with the four young actors who are current conservatory students, are what make this play worth watching.
From the moment the lights go up on this latter-day ensemble of “pretty little liars,” dancing and chanting around an illicit fire in the forest, their performances are spellbinding. Their courtroom scene is unforgettable. They grab ahold of the audience with powerful, raw emotions and maintain a gravitational pull each time they appear individually or together on stage. Even audience members familiar with the story will ask themselves: What will they do next?
Two in particular who stand out, are: Monique Ward Lonergan (Mary Warren), 17, who was as exciting to watch here as when she played one of the three feral-like witches in Sacramento Theatre’s production of “Macbeth” earlier this year; and the versatile Maddy Wood (Mercy Lewis), 15, who played the title character in Sacramento Theatre’s production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” last year.
“She is someone to watch for in future productions,” this reviewer wrote at the time. The two other conservatory students are Sarah Walter (Betty Parris), 15, and Chloe Cook (Susanna Wallcott), 16. There is one other significant and presumably correctable challenge for “The Crucible.” In the days leading up to the production’s previews and opening night performance, a key actor — Gary S. Martinez, who was to play Deputy Gov. Danforth, the judge who presides over the witch trials — suffered a sudden medical problem. He has been replaced by Scott Coopwood, a clearly seasoned actor who nonetheless had limited time to learn his lines and so needed to read most of them from a script on opening night.
Mitchel Benson is The Bee’s theater critic and a freelance writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
What: One of the iconic works of American theater, “The Crucible” dramatizes the Salem witch trials of late-17th century Massachusetts. The story, written as an allegory for the “Red Scare” of the 1950s, helped launch one of today’s most popular political epithets: “witch hunt.” Written by Arthur Miller. Directed by Natasha Hause.
Where: Sacramento Theatre Co., Main Stage, 1419 H St.
When: Through Oct. 21; 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays.
Cost: $15-$38. Discounts available for students, seniors and military. Information: 916-443-6722 or www.sactheatre.org
Running time: About 2½ hours, including a 15-minute intermission