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Comedy and drama bordering two sides of county

Barefoot in the Park at North BeachSEABROOK – A quote from Giles Corey of the Salem Farms by the poet Henry Longfellow will serve to link two very different theater-going experiences bordering two sides of Prince George’s County.

“The woods, the harvest-fields; and, far beyond, the pleasant landscape stretching to the sea.”

Giles Corey of Salem Farms is a character of “The Crucible,” Arthur Miller’s grim study of the Salem Witch Trials, playing now at the Olney Theatre Center. First, though, the sea, or rather “the pleasant landscape stretching to the bay” at North Beach, Maryland.  

It was a cool April day at the beach, yet everyone was dressed for summer along the boardwalk at North Beach, 10 miles or so east of Prince George’s County on the expansive Chesapeake Bay. North Beach is home not just to a boardwalk, sea breezes and occasional choppy waves hitting the beach, but with the intriguing Twin Beach Players theatrical company. (Chesapeake Beach adjoins North Beach, hence the “Twin Beach” name). The troupe performs at the Boys and Girls Club of Southern Maryland, where an afternoon barefoot walk on the cool sand at the beach, visitors to the small town recently enjoyed a production of Neil Simon’s vintage romantic comedy hit, "Barefoot in the Park."      

The audience was entertained at the beginning that “for those of us who remember the 1960’s, it was a more innocent, simpler time.” It is hard to envision the 1960s with its political unrest as anything resembling this “better, happier time” description. Yet, “Barefoot in the Park” premiered originally in October 1963, one month before the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which kicked off the turbulence of the decade in earnest. The play revolves around newlyweds who move into an apartment on the top floor (with no elevator) in New York City. The husband Paul is a buttoned-down lawyer, whereas the wife Corie is a fun-loving risk taker. Both are well-played by Justin McCright and Abigail Thibeault, who in real life are the very opposites of their stage characters: Abigail is a lawyer in southern Maryland. Justin, though an engineer, is an enthusiastic avocational casino craps dealer.    

Despite the introduction that this play was going to return us to the 1960s, and pop songs from that decade are played during intermission, some of the costumes and props appear to come from other eras. Corie is at times dressed in boots and jeans, a trend more common during the early 1980s, and in one party scene, her attire looks more 1930s. The staging was very functional and included broken heat pipes, a smashed skylight window, and an outdoor window ledge (don’t fall, Paul!), which all provide running jokes in the play.  

From the light romantic comedy on the eastern coast of our region, we now move to the much more serious subject of the Salem Witch Trials in a production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” playing on the other side bordering Prince George’s Country in Olney. The Olney Theatre Center’s production of the play runs through May 20. Ostensibly about the 1692 Salem Witch Trials in Salem, Massachusetts, the play is usually understood to be an allegory of the McCarthy Era, which many deem as a witch-hunt of suspected Communists. Indeed, in Germany, where this play is frequently performed, it is known as “Hexenjagd,” which means “Witchhunt.” Giles Corey, the John Proctor family, and many other upstanding citizens of Salem are accused of witchcraft, “a hanging offense.”      

This production is acted well, though the acoustics are uneven. The sets are unconventional but excellent – large scattered boards placed vertically and slanted represent at times a forest maze, where girls are accused of dancing and participating in witchcraft, leading to the infamous trials. At other times, the same boards may be thought of as suggesting materials from the simple Puritan meeting-house but scattered to represent a society in the chaos caused by the witchcraft hysteria. This reminded me of Puritan leader Cotton Mather’s non-fiction description of the Salem Witch Trials in his book “Wonders of the Invisible World.”

“And immediately a demon invisibly (entered) the meeting-house, tore down a part of it (and) people found a board, which was strongly fastened with several nails, transported unto another quarter of the house.”  

One aspect of the show, however, is less successful: Jason King Jones, Senior Associate Artistic Director, writes in the program that “the play’s themes resonate with deafening clarity in America’s present moment” of political divisiveness. Therefore, the abstract colonial sets give way after the intermission to modern plate glass doors and electric fluorescent light tubes, implying that “The Crucible’s” subject is manifestly equivalent to the events of today. This may well be a valid point, but the production does not go beyond some use of glass panes and fluorescent lights to get this point across. It is of my opinion that the point might have been made more effectively with a more extensive use of modern-day fixtures and even modern costumes for the second half of the production.    

In closing, one need not leave the Prince George’s County for North Beach or Olney to see interesting theatre, as the Prince George’s “Little Theatre’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” is playing at the Bowie Playhouse at White Marsh Park from April 20 through May 12. Indeed, this is the subject of next week’s review.

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