Salempost 2: week 1

I burst into tears driving to rehearsal today. I was singing along to Francis Dunnery’s Riding on the Back and when I came to the chorus:I’m riding on the back (horns!)
I’m riding on the back (horns!)
Of a giant bird
Bigger than you
Bigger than me

I totally lost it – heaving sobs, nearly had to pull over. It happened twice; I had collected myself and the chorus came again and – it was like I was puking up feelings. I saw myself on that bird, and felt so small and powerless, and I felt the fear of having no choice but to hold on tightly, and love that dear bird like my mother and child combined. I felt the breathless shock at riding with my eyes open, seeing the great fall that awaits my letting go, and the amazing view of the glorious world all around. The bird is God of course, and faith is my grip on the nape of her neck. It isn’t easy, and occasionally the bird throws in a barrel roll or two.

No wonder then, that I have been so gripped by Hale’s spiritual ride into the unknown. Here I am, a modern man, more equipped perhaps than Hale to factor doubt into my spiritual life, feeling relatively shattered myself in the face of my uncertain future. Am I personalizing this performance too much?

The Crucible began with an enormous gathering of artists and staff for what we call the “design presentation”, but is really more of a kick-off, or christening of the new production as it begins. It was an astonishing mix of artistic disciplines, with Jeep giving a wonderful talk about how the woods represented fear to the Puritans, and the shaping of their houses was a literal cutting of safety out of fear. His design is a kind of architectural frame surrounded by tree trunks. The walls and the frame gradually disappear as the play gathers to its somber end. Marla has designed gorgeous period costumes: layers of darkly dyed and textured wool, black and brown leather, simple linen. After coming off of Jason(needless to say a radically different look) I find myself thinking of this husband and wife design team, really, these two are living treasures.

Gathered around several tables that afternoon for the first read through were a various “ages” of our Philly theatre community: the elders, actors like Tom (who plays Cory) and Marsha (Anne Putnam), and the other married couple in the play, Ceal (Rebecca Nurse) and Peter (Rev. Parris); the middies, 30 – 50 year old actors like Susan and me, Chris who plays Proctor (and who played opposite Susan in the Panto); and the youth, twentysomethings at the beginning of their careers, like Julianna (Abigail), Jeb (Willard) and Kristy (Mary Warren) – who is also a former student of mine. I find myself feeling comfortably in my place in this “lineage”: admiring of those who have come before and proud of the younger ones, some of whom I feel a direct connection to. Jeep is there too. We get swept up in the momentum of the play, and the great emotion of it. I find myself blowing my voice out and banging the table at one point, and Susan is awash in tears as she says goodbye to her “husband” for the last time, the first time. Jeep told me later he was watching the younger actors watch the rest of us mouths agape, and I thought it too: what an astonishing first read it was. Again: the payoff of a company of Citizen Actors, at ease with each other and ready to go for it.

David spoke about how the play has opened up the further away we get from the McCarthyism of the 1950s, how it has almost attained a mythic quality like the Greek plays Miller loved. It seems to speak to the slippery ease with which we choose to obey fear, and invent the cause of it by scape-goating the most vulnerable among us. Miller’s condemnation of the racism at work beneath the witch hunting leaps out at me, as Hale is front and center in identifying the slave Tituba as the first witch. In a society in which fear is the driving force, absolutist doctrines can take hold, and horrible crimes can be committed as long as the fear may be plausibly said to be remedied by them. I think of the skill with which the Bush administration has used our fear of terrorism to justify a criminal war and erode our civil liberties. We gasped the first time we heard Danforth say “You are either with this court or you must be counted against it”.