Sacramento is graced with excellent theater companies. Each serves a different audience, but all provide high quality productions. This past weekend the Sacramento Theater Company (STC) opened its 74th season with a strong performance of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” while the B Street Theater, now in its new home at the impressive Sofia, premiered Martyna Majok’s “Ironbound.” Both productions are worthy additions to the Sacramento theater season.
Miller wrote his play in the midst of the infamous McCarthy hearings by which the House of Representatives’ committee on “un-American activities” (HUAC) sought to force high profile individuals in the entertainment industry to reveal the names of alleged Communist sympathizers.
Miller had been subpoenaed to testify before the committee and to give the names of those he knew had associated with the Communist Party. He refused and shortly thereafter began to write “Crucible.” It opened in 1953 and won the Tony Award for best play. It is now regarded as a central work in the canon of American drama.
The story concerns the Salem witch trials of 1692 and ’93, when hysteria in Massachusetts over alleged witchcraft rituals resulted in the hanging of 19 who were convicted of consorting with the devil and another who was “pressed” to his death for refusing to testify. Miller used the historical details to construct a drama in which one man was forced to lie about his alleged involvement with devil worship to avoid being hanged. To be effective in telling his story, a production of the play must capture his torment while also portraying the agony suffered by others in the town.
The STC production, skillfully directed by Natasha Hause, succeeds at both tasks. With a strong 22-member cast and excellent performances from many, the play’s drama is delivered as both a historical account and as an allegory for a dark side of the human condition that seems to be ever with us, even today. The timing of the production, with the current charges and counter-charges surrounding the Kavanaugh hearings, makes the play seem even more relevant than it may have been 65 years ago.
Everything about this production is first-rate, starting with Ms. Hause’s interpretation of the script. In a chat with her before the opening night performance, she spoke of the play’s continuing relevance as she paid tribute to her set designer (Eric Broadwater) and her lighting designer (Jessica Bertine). And the set (eerily claustrophobic) and the lighting (constantly matching the mood of the moment) add immeasurably to the production. So, too, does the background music that accompanies the highly dramatic scenes in the second act. Credit there goes to Ed Lee and Ms. Haugh. The excellent period costumes were designed by Jessica Minnihan.
The cast is led by James Louis Wagner as John Proctor, the man given the chance to save his life if he will lie about devil worship, and Shannon Mahoney as his wife, who is forced to lie to try to save him. Both give wonderful portrayals, Mr. Wagner’s full of heartfelt fury, Ms. Mahoney’s beautifully understated. Their scenes as the play builds to its climax are tragically beautiful.
Also magnificent in major supporting roles are Michael Jenkinson as Reverend Hale, fervent believer in the power of the devil, who slowly sees the folly in the prosecution; Eric Wheeler as the self-centered and small-minded town pastor who allows himself to be subverted by the witchcraft claims; Abbey Campbell as Abigail Williams, who stirs up the witchcraft charges after being rebuked by Proctor (with whom she had a short-lived affair); and, most commendably, Monique Ward Lonergan as Mary Warren, the young girl who finds herself in the middle of Proctor’s trial when she tries to break the spell cast by Abigail and her friends. (Ms. Lonergan alternates in the role with Eden Marie Hey.)
Also of note in the cast for their strong performances are Susan Andrews as Rebecca Nurse and Lew Rooker as Giles Corey (both of whom refused to acknowledge the witch hysteria), Taylor Vaughan as Tituba, the immigrant servant who led the young girls in nighttime frolics that were mistakenly viewed as witchcraft, and Scott Copewood as Deputy Governor Danforth. Mr. Copewood jumped into the production scant days before opening night (replacing Gary Martinez) and was working from a printed script (placed in a Bible) which he used liberally on opening night. He still effectively conveyed the sanctimony and intolerance the role requires as the “enforcer” of God’s word.
“The Crucible” is one of those plays that define American theater. This production provides the Sacramento community the opportunity to see a Broadway-level offering of a classic that is, as Ms. Haugh noted, both timely and timeless.
Martyna Majok’s “Ironbound” is perhaps a less auspicious play, but it, too, merits attention, and the B Street production, directed by Lyndsay Burch, is also worthy of praise. It is a first-rate production (as are all B Street efforts), and is more consequential than some of the standard B Street fare. It stars Dana Brooke as Darja, an immigrant (from Poland) who has worked and lived in Elizabeth, New Jersey, (Ironbound is the name of a part of the city) for over 20 years when the play begins. We meet her at a bus stop where she is being confronted by Tommy, her boyfriend (as we quickly learn) with whom she has lived for the last seven years. Tommy and Darja are at a crossroads in their relationship since Darja has learned that Tommy has been having an affair with the wealthy woman whose home Darja cleans.
This opening scene is very effectively staged by Ms. Burch. The bus stop is in a shady part of town, with rubbish strewn in the background and the sense that you wouldn’t want to be there alone at night. Darja, however, insists on waiting for the bus, even though, as Tommy (who fervently wants the relationship to continue) reminds her, it might not be scheduled to come by very soon. In the course of their conversation, we learn that Darja has a son who has taken off with her car. We later learn more about the son and about Darja’s two previous marriages.
The first of those marriages was to Maks, whom we meet in a flashback scene at the same bus stop. (The bus stop, wonderfully designed by Samantha Reno, is the single set for the entire play, which consists of one 80-minute act.) Maks and Darja met as new immigrants. He had his heart set on moving to Chicago to become a blues musician. She preferred the familiarity of New Jersey.
Darja also has more practical concerns, her pregnancy being foremost among them. The scenes with Maks take place in 1992. In a later scene, Darja meets a young man, Vic, when she is destitute and planning to sleep on a cardboard box at the same bus stop. (The appearance of the bus stop never changes over the 22 years that are portrayed in the play’s different scenes, which effectively conveys the unchanging quality of Darja’s life.)
“Ironbound,” winner of the 2016 Helen Hayes award for outstanding original new play, is a small play, but it isn’t without moments of high drama. Instrumental in conveying that drama is the excellent cast Ms. Burch (and producing artistic director Buck Busfield) has assembled. Ms. Brooke is terrific, but so are the always excellent Peter Story as Tommy, Arusi Santi as Maks, and Samuel Kebede as Vic. All four portray the people who represent the reality of immigrant and low-income life in America today. Ms. Majok’s play gives voice to them, and Ms. Burch’s production tells their story well.
Performances of “The Crucible” continue through October 21. Tickets and information are available at the STC box office (1419 H St.), by phone (916-443-6722) or online (sactheatre.org). Performances for “Ironbound” continue through October 28. Tickets and information are available at the Sofia box office (2700 Capitol Avenue), by phone (916-443-5300) or online (www.bstreettheatre.org).