REVIEW WRITTEN BY NOAH BURD
For 21st Century Media
The two things that practically every high school student knows about Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” are that it tells the story of the Salem witch trials of 1692 and that it was written in the era of unchecked McCarthyism. Miller is said to have written the play in part to criticize the witch hunt for communist sympathizers spearheaded by politicians like Joseph McCarthy during the second red scare. Yet those who haven’t actually seen “The Crucible” might not be aware just how well the play works as a courtroom thriller. At its heart, Miller’s play is more than an allegory for 1950s politics — it suggests that miscarriages of justice are not mere aberrations in our national history, but a recurrent and foundational element.
Playcrafters of Skippack’s latest production of the classic offers its audience a tense and naturally-unfolding drama. When the daughter of Reverend Parris (Eric Rupp) becomes sick in the small Massachusetts town, rumors of sorcery begin to circulate. The young girls of the town, led by the reverend’s niece Abigail (Bishon Prushankin), begin acting suspicious, trying to hide their late-night meetings in the woods. When the Reverend John Hale (Philip Seader) comes to town, he is intrigued by the rumors — an intrigue that soon invites a punitive and bureaucratic court to Salem, ultimately resulting in the accusation of witchcraft of over 200 people and the execution of 20.
Director Curtis Cockenberg, Jr., who previously directed a production of “The Crucible” with Playcrafters 30 years ago, knows how to elicit sympathy for each of the characters, even at their ugliest moments. Though John Proctor (Anthony Marsala) stands up against the runaway court, his righteous rage occasionally turns to a moody violence. Marsala portrays the contradictions inherent in his character expertly, threatening to whip his servant mere moments after winning the audience over. He is overcome by feelings of guilt from an affair he once carried out, but seems reluctant to take responsibility for his actions.
While Proctor is ostensibly the central character, uniformly strong performances from the ensemble really serve to capture the small-town feel of colonial Salem. Each character grows and changes allegiances based on their own compelling motives. And in a play with this many characters, it is remarkable that none of them feel superfluous or redundant. John’s wife Elizabeth (Carly Fried) is extremely honest, though she is far from dull as so many honest characters are. She negotiates the revenge-obsessed community and confronts the accusations of her self-proclaimed rival, Abigail. Zoe Muller imbues the repentant Mary Warren with a nervous and unsettling energy. She manages the difficult task of portraying a character who is simultaneously easy to pity and to resent. Rich Geller plays Giles Corey with a spunkiness that bristles delightfully against the serious and punitive nature of the court officials.
One of the production’s strongest aspects is how naturally the drama unfolds. In fact, the accusations of witchcraft at first seem almost secondary to the various townspeople’s petty squabbles — who owns what property, whose children have danced impiously in the woods, who lusts after whose spouse. Impressively, the production moves through the conflict’s rapid escalation in the courts almost invisibly; the characters only realize just how high the stakes have become after it is too late and Salem is awash with fraud.
There’s no singular antagonist in the play, but the inflexible court presided over by the rigid and bureaucratic Deputy Governor Danforth (Ben Fried) make Miller’s work a spiritual sibling to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. In Heller’s work, Captain John Yossarian attempts to leave the air force by being classified as insane, only Yossarian’s claiming to be insane in order to avoid being killed indicates that he is in fact sane, making him unable to leave the service. Similarly, in “The Crucible,” the accused must falsely confess to practicing witchcraft in order for Danforth to acknowledge that they are telling the truth and commute their death sentences.
Playcrafters hits these ironic notes perfectly, with Cockenberg and cast capturing both the frustration and mundane-nature of hysteria. Despite the setting and the age of the play, it still feels incredibly modern and relevant, speaking to issues of class, gender, and religion. Even for an audience member without the historical context of the Salem witch trials or McCarthyism, the taut drama proves to be absolutely absorbing, a fascinating story that still resonates today.
IF YOU GO
“The Crucible” will be on stage at 8 p.m. Aug. 29, 30 and Sept. 4-6. A 3 p.m. matinee is planned for Aug. 31. Playcrafters is at 2011 Store Road, Skippack. For more information, call (610) 584-4005 or check www.playcrafters.org.