Much evil can be done in an climate of fear. Such is the lesson of The Crucible. In his classic play, Arthur Miller uses the setting of the Salem witch trials to cast allusions to the era of its creation: the early 1950s in which fear of communism made politicians, leaders and normal folks behave irrationally. The playwright saw many of his fellow writers accused of being communists, their careers devastated or halted, their names become labels of shame. Miller saw major parallels between these events and those in Salem, Mass., in 1692, when accusations of witchcraft and demon possession drove a town to hang 20 people.
Miller uses the names of real people who participated in the witch hunts and trials in Salem, but he's not always strict with the facts. This play isn't history, just a close resemblance to events that actually occurred. As the play opens, two girls are exhibiting strange, inexplicable illnesses. In the search for a cause and cure, locals start claiming witchcraft is involved. Accusations fly. Several girls, including the Rev. Parris' daughter Betty (Leigh Alison Price) and his niece Abigail Williams (Lindsey Andrews) were seen dancing around a fire in the forest with the slave girl from Barbados, Tituba (Marissa Weaver).
In a powerful scene early in the play, Tituba is surrounded by Rev. Parris (Tony Cedeno), Rev. Hale (Terry Weber), a minister from a nearby community who has experience with cases of demonic possession, and Thomas Putnam (Gay Harrison), a proud and rich Salem man. As Tituba is questioned by the men, Putnam cries out that she should be hanged, and she confesses to being under the power of the devil. The men focus on her every word. From across the stage, Abigail sees how much power Tituba has gained from her confession. In this moment Abigail realizes that she will be saved through confession and her piety confirmed through accusation.
Abigail isn't the good girl she seems. She was released from her previous position in the Proctor household when Elizabeth Proctor (Bonnie Gould) suspected an inappropriate relationship with John Proctor (John Forrest Ferguson). Andrews plays Abigail as a young temptress who is beginning to realize her power over men via sex, purity, and fear.
Even though it's hard to fathom that this town of God-fearing adults accepted the ravings of teenage girls over the testimony of pious and honest adults, the actors make every angst-ridden minute believable. Ferguson gives a stellar performance as John Proctor, the only person who sees Salem's blame-game for what it really is—that the finger-pointing has more to do with vengeance than the devil—but the religious and judicial powers that be seem to seek out only spiritual reasons for why these girls, led by Abigail, swoon, chant and claim to be controlled by evil forces.
The scenes between Ferguson and Gould are heartbreaking and particularly intimate. While strong Christian faith is held up as the ideal, the couple's faith is complicated by John's sin of adultery. These are obviously good people, but good isn't enough in the midst of a witch hunt. Ultimately, John realizes he must admit his own transgressions in order to expose Abigail and hopefully call the hoax to an end. In a play where all the characters act to save themselves or accuse others, John's actions are based in an honest effort to do what's right. Even when Miller's play is beating a dead horse—OK, we get it, jumping to conclusions out of ignorance and fear is bad—Ferguson's character never comes across as an infallible and pious hero. He's defensive in the way of a man who knows he's done wrong, is repentant, but believes his guilt is between his wife, himself and God, no one else. He's a real guy dealing with his own demons. Ferguson makes Proctor's passions and trials more interesting and significant than all the hysterical townies put together.
Director Bruce Speas makes the most of his large, talented cast. The dialogue-heavy play leaves actors standing around much of the time, which makes some scenes seem static. The set by Jaroslav Malina, an internationally acclaimed set designer from Prague, is most notable for its versatility. Unpainted wooden lofts on rollers become a cozy home, a jail and a court room. White, leafless trees stand behind the set and in the wings as a constant reminder of the darkness and mystery symbolized by the forest.
As the Clarence Brown Theatre presents this 50-year-old play, the major question is, how relevant is The Crucible? A 1953 audience understood Miller's comments about fear leading to hysteria, religious zealotry creating drastic outcomes. But what do we look upon in contemporary events for comparison? The connection to September 11 begs to be made. The Crucible is a portrait of what happens when we act out of fear and prejudice, and in the months since September 11, I think we've proved that we've learned from and not completely repeated history. There have been reports of violence against Muslims and people who look like Muslims—and while one act is still too many—not as much as there could have been. Seeing a play like The Crucible makes me hope we've come so far from a small, half-crazed New England community that we're capable of understanding and compassion and rationality.