“The Crucible” is an epic three-hour drama set during the Salem witch trials of 1692. Acclaimed playwright Arthur Miller lays bare the fallacies associated with the term “witch trial” -- being accused makes you guilty, professing your innocence makes you even guiltier and anyone who sides with the accused must be guilty, too.
Miller used this fictionalized version of the historical trials to comment on America's Cold War-era paranoia about communism. It must have taken some bravery to write this play in such a social climate. (He was later called to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee.) “Crucible” premiered on Broadway in 1953, and won the Tony Award for best play. It remains relevant in the age of the internet, when the court of public opinion can instantly render verdicts that are heard around the globe.
Mark me well, good readers -- the dialogue be written in a period dialect. It lends a bit of poetry to the proceedings, but is not so obtuse that a modern audience won't be able to follow it.
The production opens in near darkness, as the teenage girls of Salem dance in the woods. Ominous red firelight rises in the distance. (Lighting design by Tim Thistleton.) Reverend Samuel Parris, played by Don Stewart, happens upon the girls, and they run.
The next day, Parris' daughter Betty (Madison Davis) is lying in bed in a catatonic state. While his congregation convenes downstairs, Parris aggressively questions his niece, Abigail Williams (Skye Privat), about what happened in the woods. Then, Thomas and Ann Putnam (Erik Stein and Karin Hendricks) burst in, saying their own daughter is wandering about in a trance. They believe the cause to be witchcraft. Hoping to assuage the rumors about his household, Parris invites witchcraft expert Reverend John Hale (George Walker) to investigate.
Also present is local farmer John Proctor (Andrew Philpot), who is skeptical about witchcraft. Abigail used to work as his maid, but was fired under mysterious circumstances. The two seem to have a deeper connection.
As Hale questions Abigail, she first shifts the blame to the family's slave, Tituba (Méami Maszewski). Eventually, the girls implicate several of the women in town as being in league with the devil.
Miller links the familiar domestic drama in the Parris and Proctor homes to the larger social drama of the trials.
The relatable Philpot draws us into John Proctor's inner struggles. Should he tell the court what he knows about Abigail's accusations, even if it means revealing things about himself that he's ashamed of?
Polly Firestone Walker gives a dignified performance as John's morally upright wife Elizabeth.
Peter S. Hadres is delightfully cantankerous as the litigation-prone farmer Giles Corey.
As Hale, George Walker enters and immediately owns the room. He struts about with the confidence of a man who believes there are precise rules to detecting witchcraft. That confidence is gradually picked apart as Hale witnesses the public's paranoia taking hold.
As the petty, fretful Parris, Stewart creates a strong contrast with the more forceful personalities that surround him, such as Proctor, Hale and the Putnams.
Privat is adept at portraying both Abigail's veneer of innocence and the manipulative personality that lies underneath.
Meanwhile, Bailey Leyvas Durnin conveys the more sincere innocence of the Proctors' maid, Mary Warren.
There's an extensive supporting cast, and they're all up to PCPA's usual high standards.
In her brief scene as Rebecca Nurse, Rosh Wright shows us why the the wise character is so highly regarded in Salem.
In the role of Ezekiel Cheever, Leo Cortez convincingly treats the discovery of a “poppet” (small doll-like puppet) as the most damning evidence imaginable.
PCPA Artistic Director Mark Booher lends his towering physique and deep, booming voice to Deputy Governor Danforth, who presides over the trials. It's interesting to see Booher, who makes genial speeches on PCPA's opening nights, portray a character with such a menacing presence.
The wealthier townsfolk dress in black and white, starched and severe, while the farmers wear looser brown garb. Philpot is dressed in a frontiersman-looking outfit that sets him apart from the rest of the cast, as the character is set apart from society. (Costumes by Eddy L. Barrows.)
Due to the subject matter, the tone is almost relentlessly grim. The few moments of humor come mostly from Proctor's down-to-earth wit or Corey's rants. Aspects of this society that aren't the focus of the plot are also disturbing: Parris has no qualms about owning a slave and even Proctor talks of whipping his servant for disobedience.
Even Jason Bolen's set is foreboding -- it's dominated by a massive stockade with huge tree trunks looming beyond it. Two structures resembling gallows stand at either side of the stage. The stockade is transformed into the inner walls of the characters' homes and the courtroom, suggesting the constant worry about keeping evil out.
Especially dramatic moments are punctuated by eerie music and whispering voices. (Sound design by Andrew Mark Wilhelm.)
The townspeople would rather blame an outside force of evil than admit their own foibles.
“We are only what we always were,” observes Proctor, “but naked now.”
The hysteria spreads as more of the accused “confess” and claim that someone else convinced them to turn to the devil. The Proctors, like the audience, view the growing hysteria with incredulity. This turns to shock as they, too, are drawn into the events.
As the play progresses further into tragedy, the actors turn in deeply emotional performances, particularly Philpot and Firestone.
Director Roger DeLaurier unifies the sizable cast and brings together a powerful production of a classic play.