Pat Launer, Center Stage on KSDS JAZZ88
September 26, 2014
Arthur Miller must be smiling from the Beyond, knowing that “The Crucible” is still fresh and relevant.
His 1953 classic used the Salem Witch Trials as an allegory for the Red-baiting McCarthyism of his era. Two newer plays (both by women), one set in the present, the other, ten years after the Salem trials, share with Miller a fascination with the seductiveness of religious zealots – who can twist the truth, terrify youth and undermine our best natures – all in the name of godliness.
The world premiere, “Kingdom City,” by Sheri Wilner , is based in fact. It concerns censorship, specifically, the cancellation of a high school production of “The Crucible” in small-town Missouri. The ultimate conflict pits a strong-willed, liberal—minded New York director against the local youth pastor, who leads a ‘purity class’ for teens.
In a wonderful, nuanced performance by Ian Littleworth , the pastor is affable and credible – to a point. Then he goes, as he warns the kids about social situations, “over the line.”
The play’s beginning is choppy, the end too abrupt, and the ceremony scene protracted. But the drama is crafty, intriguing and, under the imaginative direction of Jackson Gay, excellently presented at La Jolla Playhouse. It’s guaranteed to engender fascinating post-performance discussion.
Back in the 1700s, we have “A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World,” its unwieldy title taken by playwright Liz Duffy Adams from the writings of Puritan pamphleteer Cotton Mather, instigator of the Witch Trials.
Abigail Williams, the real-life accuser at the center of “The Crucible,” returns to New England ten years later, plagued by doubts and nightmares, about having sent 25 people to their death. She confronts her former cohort Mercy Lewis, now a bitter, suspicious widow, who still believes there are witches, and only a witch would deny it. So begins Abigail’s outrageous trial, under the aegis of a hidebound, self-appointed minister/magistrate.
The first act is filled with tension and dread, but the second, except for a spiky little twist, devolves into personal independence discourse and 21st century romance.
The Moxie Theatre production, superbly directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, is potent, beautifully designed and wonderfully acted.
In every age, it seems, the most extreme prey on the most vulnerable.
“Kingdom City” runs through October 5 at the La Jolla Playhouse.
“A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World” continues through October 12 at Moxie Theatre, near SDSU.
©2014 PAT LAUNER