by Linda Weltner
You may have seen the play before, or even watched the movie, but Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, as performed at the Salem Theater Company under the brilliant direction of John Fogle, is so immediate, so intimate, and so moving that it seems brand new.
Despite the STC’s tiny stage, the set, designed by John Fogle and Bruce Greenwald, presents a wide expanse of space: to the left and right, a white birch forest, in the center the spartan interiors of various Colonial buildings. There are young women dancing in those woods to the beating of a drum, men with lanterns wandering through them in the cold blue light of an invisible moon. To the sounds of birdsong, hymn singing, and the jabber of crowds, you are thrust into a past when witches and the devil claimed men and women’s souls.
The extraordinary lighting (Greg Mancusi-Ungaro) and sound design (Matt Gray) shut out all worlds but this one.
The scene opens with a child in bed. Reverend Samuel Parris, (John Melzcer) the arrogant local minister, has summoned a colleague to determine if evil spirits have laid his daughter low. A wise and gentle Rebecca Nurse (Hazel Grenham) holds the girl’s hand and suggests patience. Ann (Trudi Olivetti) and Thomas Putnam (Mark Davis), whose own child has been similarly afflicted, arrive, only to wonder if Ann’s previous miscarriages are the work of the devil.
And so begins the doleful history of the Salem witch trials.
The actors have been skillfully cast; each face fits its character. They interact like folks from a small village, each struggling to forge their own relationship with a Hellfire-and-Brimstone God. In flickering light, or with the stark outline of prison bars across their faces, the victims struggle – to be honest, to avoid shame, to maintain integrity, to save face and even their lives – while those who judge seek desperately to justify their acts or clear their consciences.
There are many outstanding performances. David Rich is a tortured John Proctor. He metamorphoses from a man with a longing for a woman he should not want to the regretful husband of an unforgiving wife; from a father-to-be who wants to live and raise his child to a Christian who must ultimately face his God. We see these transformations written on his face, in his voice, and ultimately in his broken body. Elizabeth Proctor (Linda Goetz), as a woman whose insecurity quenches any warmth she may feel, is as stiff and withholding as any wronged Puritan wife, then comes beautifully alive with grief and love at the play’s end.
Governor Danforth (Stephen Cooper), the zealous chief prosecutor, is hateful, yet we see his ambivalence. We roll our eyes at his clumsy attempts to be fair, yet cannot help but understand his need to protect himself from later censure. In contrast, Reverend Hale (Chuck Schwager), a minister from Beverly, comes to question his earlier judgments and as his pleas to save the innocent fall on deaf ears, his entire being seems to sink into despair. Abigail Williams (Julia Short) the ringleader of the witch hunt, veers from sweet to devout to terrified to vengeful as her accusations are challenged. Her face is a mirror of her hidden intentions. Mary Warren (Nicole Bauke) is painfully shy as maid to the Proctors and one of the accusers. She can barely speak or raise her eyes; she shrinks deeper into herself even as she dares to utter the forbidden truth. And Tituba (Ariane Grossi), with her deep voice, full-throated laugh, and willingness to play any game in order to return to Barbados, possesses the very freedom and love of life the Christian clergy is doing its best to crush.
There isn’t a weak link in this production. Even Giles Corey (Chuck Baker) stumbles over his words like the old geezer he is. A crucible, like this Crucible, is a container that can withstand very high temperatures, even as its contents melt or are transformed. The intensity of this Crucible will make you hold your breath. There are surprising moments of visual beauty. The honesty of this performance will touch your heart.
This is a Crucible worth seeing more than once.
The Crucible runs through October 19, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 5:00 p.m. There is no performance on Thursday, October 3. Tickets are $25 for Adults, $20 for Seniors and $10 for Students and are available online at http://www.salemtheatre.com or by calling Ovation Tix at 866-811-4111. Salem Theatre Company performs at the STC Theatre, 90 Lafayette Street in Salem.
Linda Weltner’s weekly column, “Ever So Humble,” appeared in the At Home section of the Boston Globe for 19 years. She is presently host of the cable show, “Changing Our World,” on MHTV in Marblehead.