note: entire contents copyright 2006 by Caroline Burlingham Ellis
Special to Theater Mirror
In the troubled 1950s, when Sen. Joseph McCarthy was spearheading a witch hunt for Communist sympathizers, and whole families were glued to their black and white televisions to see which of their friends and heroes would be condemned next, playwright Arthur Miller wrote "The Crucible."
Miller himself was called to testify about his leftist leanings, as were many in the arts community. Among the few real Communists at the time, hardly anyone thought about undermining the government. Many non- Communists were blacklisted or jailed for having socialist friends or expressing views about the Bill of Rights that differed from those of McCarthy or the House Un-American Activities Committee. Some escaped by fingering innocent others. In 1954, two years before testifying, the Miller was refused a passport to see "The Crucible" performed in Belgium.
Witch hunts similar to the one in his play occur in every generation. But people with short memories tend to regard what is happening as a completely different situation. Miller aimed to expose witch-hunt psychology and alert people to its nearness. For audiences in the fifties and sixties, "The Crucible" packed a wallop.
Does it still? On the first Friday night of the run, when a character announced, "If you are not with us, you are against us," many in the audience laughed, recognizing language coming from Washington today. Strangely, playgoers laughed often.
But what's so funny? Not paranoia or heavy-handed enforcement of ideology. They are dangerous. In 1692, Salem innocents accused of practicing witchcraft and undermining the theocracy were crushed to death with rocks or hung. Similarly today, people merely under suspicion have been condemned without trial, tortured and killed -- by both the United States and its adversaries -- while servicemen and women have died or been maimed in a mismanaged crusade.
It is perhaps inevitable with such a large cast and the passage of centuries that some of the witch baiters would seem cartoonish and that sitcom- trained audiences would react to them as if watching the Flintstones. However, as the victims' angst began to be perceived as genuine--and the accusers as lethal--the laughter died out. Vokes is to be commended for helping people to think.
Among the production's accomplishments are the four sets. Designed by director John Barrett, they rotate with a minimum of fuss--an amazing feat, considering the tiny stage. First comes the home of Rev. Samuel Parris (Michael Lague), whose child (Bethany Boles) has fallen mysteriously ill. It is here that we get the first murmurs about possible witchcraft. We also meet Betty's cousin, the machiavellian Abigail Williams (Leah Carolan). Abigail has had an affair with John Proctor (Bill Stambaugh) and has enlisted the black arts of Tituba (Michelle Aguillon) in hopes of killing Proctor's wife.
The second set is Proctor's farmhouse, where the heartbroken and insecure Elizabeth (Kimberly McClure) rains accusations on her husband. In this scene, the Proctors' young servant, Mary Warren (Kimberly Schaeffer), gives Elizabeth a doll that, unbeknown to Mary, is part of Abigail's plot to point out witches.
The third set shows a meetinghouse where officials hear John Proctor's denunciation of Abigail. When Elizabeth, now standing trial for witchcraft, is brought in, she must guess whether she will be helping or hurting her husband if she tells the truth.
By this time, it is clear to most characters that truth is a rare commodity in Salem. Even the respected witch expert, Rev. John Hale (David Berti), realizes that Abigail and her friends are faking demonic possession and that their victims are scapegoating neighbors to save their own necks.
But the genie is out of the bottle. As Deputy Governor Danforth (Dan Kelly) tells Hale, questioning the testimony now would cast unacceptable doubt on the rightness of his court's actions. Power mustn't admit error. The fourth set is the jail, where Elizabeth and John forge a deeper bond and John salvages some personal valor from the mess he has unwittingly precipitated. Because of particularly strong performances by McClure, Stambagh and Carolan, the production gives more weight to the love triangle as the source of the tragedy--and less weight to latent paranoia or self-righteous ideology.
Maggie Kelly plays Susanna Walcott. Colleen Moore is Mercy Lewis. Kathy Lague and Bill Doscher are the Putnams, who covet their neighbors' land and don't mind seeing them hang. Robert Mackie as Giles Corey chooses death over bearing false witness. Dorothy Ahle is quietly powerful in the cameo role of Rebecca Nurse, David Dodson plays her husband, Andy Moore is Ezekial Cheever, Patrick Naughton is Marshall Herrick, Jonathan Ashford is Judge Hathorne, and Lanie Wish is Sarah Good.
Clair Joyce produced the show. Kimmerie H.O. Jones designed the costumes, Jack Wickwire the makeup, Robert Zawistowski the sound, and Daniel Clawson the lighting. "The Crucible" runs through Aug. 5. For further information, call (508) 358-4034.