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The Crucible bewitches theatergoers

The Crucible bewitches theatergoers (credit: Courtesy of Dennis Schebetta) The Crucible bewitches theatergoers (credit: Courtesy of Dennis Schebetta)

”The whole town’s talking witchcraft! They’ll be callin’ us witches, Abby!”

Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama opened its 2013–14 season on Friday with the American classic, The Crucible. Directed by Carnegie Mellon faculty member and alumnus Tony McKay (A’69), the show features a strong cast led by senior acting major Brian Muller with a deeply moving performance as antihero John Proctor. The Crucible grabs your attention and holds it tight until long after the house lights have gone up.

Written in response to the Joseph McCarthy scares of the 1950s, during which countless careers in entertainment and elsewhere were cut short by accusations of Communist leanings and intent to sabotage the American way of life, Arthur Miller’s classic The Crucible tackles head-on the horrific consequences of what happens when humans get caught up in the fervor of groupthink. Taking the story of a literal witch hunt as inspiration — the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 — Miller lays bare what exactly hysteria and wildly pointing fingers can lead to. In this case, it leads to the death of numerous innocent people whose word was simply too weak against that of their accuser.

John Proctor is a respected farmer who, unbeknownst to the pious Puritans of Salem, has had sexual relations with his former servant girl Abigail Williams, played by senior acting major Taylor Rose. When Abigail and her friends are caught dancing naked in the woods by her uncle, Reverend Samuel Parris (senior acting major Jimmy Nicholas), one of them takes fright and goes into a stupor that is mistaken for a bewitching. Parris’s suspicions balloon into a murmur of witchcraft that continues to grow as each of the girls begins claiming that they were bewitched in order to avoid trouble for breaking strict Puritan law.

As names continue to pour forth from the mouths of the girls, the residents of Salem have cause to watch all they do lest they are accused of witchcraft by a neighbor who covets their land or wishes to settle some long-standing score. All defense before the court is worthless; the accused are deemed false in all they say unless it be a confession of their crimes and a list of further names to be accused, in which case they are spared the guaranteed death penalty that comes with the crime of witchcraft.
Abigail, sensing the power she now holds in accusing her neighbors of witchery, decides to use her newfound saintly status to accuse Proctor’s wife Elizabeth, played by senior acting major Bridget Peterson, of conspiring with the devil so that she may finally fulfill her dream of being with John Proctor. Proctor, realizing this, tries to mount a defense against Abigail and her lying followers, but finds that the truth is not so well received when it causes men to realize they have been fooled.

The Crucible perfectly combines an intense and gripping plot with equally interesting characters, providing a highly entertaining spectacle as well as provoking thought. The cast is fantastic, especially senior acting major John Stoker’s portrayal of Reverend Hale, a man who comes to Salem riding high on the power of the word of God and finally leaves broken and questioning all that he had previously poured his life into. Senior acting major Thomas Moore’s portrayal of Judge Danforth perfectly exhibits the kind of blind stoicism that this supreme man of the law is supposed to show. Mary Warren, the poor girl who spends much of the play trying to navigate the murky waters between right and wrong, is given a great shot of life by senior musical theater major Mary Nepi. Mary’s moments of mental anguish, many of which involve breaking down into hopeless tears in the face of Abigail’s immense power, are riveting to say the least.

The stage design lends itself greatly to the overall mood of the play. Long columns representing trees surround the raised wooden platform on which much of the action takes place, with the black of the rear of the stage suggesting an endless dark forest. This effect drove home the isolation and, above all, the fear that the people of Salem had of what may have been lurking among the trees in this strange land.

In addition, throughout much of the play, villagers could be seen silently sitting against the trees, paying close attention to the words being spoken. In this forest, you had better watch what you say; in the Puritan village — as in the social media outlets of today — someone is always behind a tree listening.

The Crucible is a play that, when done well, can be near the most riveting thing one can see on stage. I confess that being exposed to it when I was 14 years old was what showed me that acting and the theater could do a lot more than merely provide entertainment. The first scene is one long fuse that slowly builds up to an explosion. By the end, the show has driven its characters into having to choose between their principles and their lives in an atmosphere where doing what is inherently right brings condemnation. The accused are forced to answer the question: Which is more valuable, your life or your good name?

The Crucible will be playing at the Philip Chosky Theater in the Purnell Center for the Arts through Sunday. Tickets can be purchased at the box office.