The high school drama department will perform “The Crucible” tonight and throughout the weekend.
By Ryan O’Quinn / Special to The Malibu Times
One would assume most high schools in America would choose a Christmas play or a light-hearted musical to perform this time of year, and Malibu High has put on some quite spectacular musicals in the past. But this season, drama teacher and director Jodi Plaia chose “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller.
Plaia said she selects play based on her students’ strengths. She said she has a very advanced group this year and wanted to challenge them. The fact that there were more girls than boys in this year’s drama department was also a deciding factor in choosing “The Crucible,” and she had reread the play recently and felt it was an important story for any time period.
“I think our modern version is [the film] “Mean Girls,” Plaia said. “I thought there are some real relevant lessons for our community and for our kids to learn from this. I have taken that approach and really stressed peer pressure and how one girl, because of something that she really wanted for herself, destroyed an entire community.”
Miller’s play is set in Salem, Mass. in 1692. The story revolves around the witch trials in the late 17th century in strict Puritan New England. The town erupts in chaos as reputations and homes are torn apart due to one girl’s influence over her friends as they start rumors and accuse others of witchcraft.
“The Crucible” opened on Broadway in 1953, and most observers agree that the play was written in response to Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s crusade against Communism and his insistence that there were spies and Communist sympathizers in the federal government.
Plaia agreed that the original intent of the story revolved around Miller’s creative attack of McCarthyism, but said the themes are far-reaching and the students understand the material related to events in history as well as their own lives.
“This has been a really hard rehearsal process because the material is so heavy and really advanced,” Plaia said. “But, ultimately, all the emotions are all the same. My key is that we all have a story to tell. Whether it’s 1692 or 2006, kids are kids, emotions are emotions and everybody wants something. Everybody has a choice.”
Plaia said during the rehearsal process the cast spent a great deal of time talking about the subject matter. They have compared it to the Holocaust as well as to the war in Iraq.
“The improvisation work that we do in rehearsal helps us get past the words and connect to the emotions on a deeper level,” said Devon Martinez, who plays Elizabeth Proctor. “It’s basically examining the dark side of human nature and connecting it to so many aspects of history. [It] just goes to show you that it lives within each of us.
“From the very beginning, Ms. Plaia has encouraged us to examine how this play is connected to different aspects of history,” Martinez continued. “It’s so destructive, these forces of persecution, and what it can do to a society when it becomes so prevalent.”
Echoing Martinez’s comment, Michael Stahler, who plays the character of John Proctor, said: “This play is so ironic for this time. These people escape persecution to persecute. Ms. Plaia encourages us to find parallels to this show and everyday life and it makes the actor live it more.”
Pam Eilerson, a member of Arts Angels, an arts support group at MHS, echoed praise for the drama program.
“I help with the publicity but mostly I’m just a mom who is so impressed by the work our teachers at Malibu High do,” Eilerson said. “To be peripherally a part of these productions is really an honor.”
Eilerson’s children, Erica and Alex Posey, are part of the chorus for this production, and she said her oldest daughter is pursuing theatre at UC Santa Barbara as a result of the excellent background she received from Plaia and Malibu Middle School teacher Bridget Leonard.
This year is Plaia’s fifth year at Malibu High. The department performs one dramatic play during the fall/winter and a musical in the spring.
“I always say I don’t produce or direct high school productions. I just produce and direct theater,” Plaia said.
“The Crucible” runs tonight (Thursday) through Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at Malibu High School. More information and tickets can be obtained by calling 310.457.6801.