It may seem disturbing to some (perhaps many) that Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is as relevant today as it was back in 1953 when it debuted at New York’s Martin Beck Theatre. It’s no secret that Miller wrote the allegorical play in response to the “witch hunt” that was riveting and the nation as the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and other self-righteous committees and organizations sought to rid the country of Communists and all those who travelled along with them – or had just had dinner with them. Loosely based on the Salem witch trials of 1692/93, the play is receiving a strong and perceptive revival at UCONN’s Connecticut Repertory Theater in Storrs, all the more so since most of the actors are UCONN students in the university’s theater arts program. Their participation cannot help but be a visceral civics lesson that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
The story is familiar to most people: a group of young women, perhaps repressed by the Puritan society in which they live, sow a few wild oats by gathering in the woods and dancing, stimulated by the stories told to them by Tituba (Angela Hunt), a Barbadian servant. They are discovered by the local minister, Reverend Parris (Rob Barnes) and, to justify their actions, claim that they have been influenced by the Devil. The girls’ lies and subterfuge soon extends to them having fits and weird sightings that, they claim, have been brought upon them by those in the community who consort with the Devil. Thus, a witch hunt ensues with a tribunal made up of such worthies as Judge Danforth (a very effective James Sutorius) and Judge Hawthorne (Nick Nudler), with the Reverend Parris egging them on. The essence of the play is that the Devil has seduced many Salem inhabitants and the sinners are offered two options: confess (to a lie) and be saved or deny the charges and face death by hanging (or being pressed, i.e., having stones placed upon them until they are crushed to death). Of course, with confession comes the demand that those “saved” name names. Soon the jail is filled and the gallows bear the weight of those condemned.
Miller was a wise playwright who understood that assault on ideas, whether they be about social hysteria or the myth of the American Dream (see The Death of a Salesman) would fall on deaf or indifferent ears if the humanity behind and supporting the insanity was not revealed. Hence, we have John Proctor (a tremendously engaging Mauricio Miranda) and his wife, Elizabeth (a very accomplished Erin Cessna, a grad student in UCONN’s Acting MFA program) having to deal with John’s involvement with a servant, Abigail (the striking Rebekah Santiago Berger), who, driven by jealousy, is at the heart of the girls’ hysteria. We also have the Reverend John Hale (Tristan Rewald), a supposed expert in witchcraft and demonology who initially seeks to reveal the Devil’s workings in Salem but soon comes to realize that what is occurring has little to do with the Devil and more to do with human lust, greed and sense of self-importance.
The set, created by Pedro L. Guevera, and costumes by Brittny Mahan, are dominated by shades of brown and black, reflecting the drab and mirthless world in which the young girls are forced to exist, a world their youthful exuberance and burgeoning sexuality revolts against. Lighting, designed by Danielle Verkennes, is significantly subdued, creating a sense that this community is surrounded by darkness, the darkness of the forest where the Devil (and aborigines) lurk. The only way to push back against the darkness is to embrace a rigid belief in God’s word as found in the Bible.
Some critics have written off The Crucible as mere polemic, a thinly veiled ‘leftist’ response to conservative beliefs and “true Americans” desire to defend “truth, justice and the American way of life,” to quote the opening of the Superman TV series. Yet Miller’s play suggests that there are many “truths,” that justice can be perverted and “the American way of life” often embraces xenophobia and a need to attack and destroy what we do not understand.
There’s the cliché referring to tense, rapt attention that involves hearing a pin drop. As with all clichés, there is truth lurking somewhere in the background, and for this cliché it is proven during the pivotal scene in the second act when Judge Danforth, attempting to weigh whether the girls have been lying or are truly beset by demons and devils, brings Elizabeth Proctor into the room to ask her if her husband is “a lecher.” If there was some device, like a Geiger counter, that could measure audience attention and concern, its needle would have been in the red as Elizabeth struggles to answer Danforth’s questions. The power of this moment, and the subsequent scene between husband and wife, with Proctor’s life hanging in the balance, is what draws us to the theater, for it is in these scenes, so well-acted and deftly directed, that we experience emotions that cannot be generated by other media. Yes, we suspend our disbelief and accept that what we are seeing is real…and riveting…and important.
CRT’s production of The Crucible is more than worthy of a trek up to Storrs. You may, initially, be aware you are watching a play but, very soon, you are drawn into the lives being portrayed on the stage. That is the magic of theater, and the magic – and the message inherent in this play – is something that we need now more than ever.
The Crucible runs through March 4. For tickets or more information call 860-486-2113 or go to www.crt.uconn.edu.