Meg Gibson (as Elizabeth Proctor) and Joe Pallister (as John Proctor) in "The Crucible."
Kate Fitzgerald (as Abigail Williams) and Joe Pallister (as John Proctor) in "The Crucible." PHIL MERRITT
Kate Fitzgerald (as Abigail Williams) in "The Crucible." PHIL MERRITT
Keith Reddin (as Reverend John Hale) in "The Crucible." PHIL MERRITT
Matthew Conlon (as Deputy-Governor Danforth) in "The Crucible." PHIL MERRITT
The voice is a powerful instrument. It can share praise and love, be raised in joyful song or, when taken to the street and amplified by thousands, effect change at the highest levels of power.
But the voice can also be used for great evil, as we’ve seen in recent years — used to effectively slander, lie, incite violence or condemn — with or without just cause or evidence.
It’s curious that humans are the only of God’s creatures that can form words that either hurt or help fellow beings, and in many ways, it is God and the fear of him (and it most certainly would be a him in this instance) that exists center stage in “The Crucible,” Arthur Miller’s chilling McCarthy-era play now running at Bay Street Theater.
Capably and concisely directed by Will Pomerantz, Bay Street’s associate artistic director, “The Crucible” features a small, but extremely talented and focused, cast of actors, most of whom have been seen on East End stages in the past. Unlike Pomerantz’s last directing gig for Bay Street — the expansively energetic musical “Ragtime” in summer 2022 — this is a pared down production, as stark as a cold November day in New England.
This show is produced under the auspices of Bay Street Theater’s Literature Live! program for teen audiences. For that reason, expect a crisp and succinct version of the script. Running a lean 90 minutes without intermission, the play is timed to accommodate school groups during the week. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty for adult audiences to appreciate in the evening and weekend performances, and the cast’s moving portrayals of a population in crisis heighten the stakes.
In all honesty, “The Crucible” isn’t an entirely easy play. Nor is it chock full of action. Set in Salem, Massachusetts circa 1690, and based on the actual witch trials that took place there, the story is largely told in exposition, and the most intriguing event isn’t even shown, as it occurs offstage prior to the curtain’s rising. The event in question involves a group of young women who are seen dancing (heaven forbid) around a cauldron in the woods late one night — some unclothed.
We soon learn that Abigail Williams (Kate Fitzgerald) is the ringleader and it was she who convinced the other girls, including Mercy Lewis (Sonnie Betts) and Mary Warren (Anna Francesca Schiavoni) to meet in the woods in order to conjure a curse with the help of Tituba, a Bahamian servant. The target of that curse is Elizabeth Proctor (Meg Gibson), wife of John Proctor (Joe Pallister), with whom Abigail has been having an affair. Recently employed in the Proctor household, Abigail was fired after Elizabeth learned of the illicit affair and a chastened John Proctor has expressed remorse to his wife and rejected Abigail. Motivated by jealousy, Abigail curses Elizbeth with hopes of regaining John’s love.
But there’s a wrinkle. The taboo moonlit dance was witnessed by Abigail’s uncle, Reverend Samuel Parris (Allen O’Reilly), and now, several of the girls have become inexplicably sickened, including Parris’s own daughter, Betty. As word spreads of the girl’s illness, the presence of the devil is strongly suspected and the big guns are called in from outside the community in the form of Reverend John Hale (Keith Reddin), a Harvard-educated clergyman and purported expert in sussing out witches.
Realizing they are cornered and fearful of revealing the true nature of the woodland dance, Abigail and the other girls conspire to claim they are being bewitched by others in the community. The names soon fly, and the list of those accused quickly grows, from those who exist at the margins of polite society, to true pillars in the community — including both Elizabeth Proctor and the upstanding Rebecca Nurse (Teresa DeBerry). Before long, dozens are accused and it doesn’t take much to make the list. Past transgressions, like a land dispute between John Proctor and Thomas Putnam (Gabriel Portuondo), as well as John’s disdain for Reverend Parris’s sermons soon mark him as a suspect as well. But at times, the girls also turn on one another as they launch into their bewitched acts and hedge their bets on whether to tell the truth or not. The logic used in discerning who is consorting with the devil is both comical and convoluted, and the action comes to a head with the arrival of Deputy-Governor Danforth (Matthew Conlon) who arrives to judge the trials in a bizarre melding of church and state.
The language used by the actors feels authentic and of the era, without being overly formal, and despite relying on a script that is heavy on words and light on action, the blocking highlights and heightens the tension between the various factions on stage. Scenic designer Mike Billings and lighting designer Justin Poruban have done a fine job at creating an environment that serves the action well and delineates the civilized world from the wild. The sound of screech owls trilling and shadows of moonlight shining through tree branches onto the simple platform stage are reminders of the untamed wilderness that so incited fear in Puritanical societies over what they could not see nor control.
That also, presumably, includes the devil. Even 70 years after its premiere, there remains an unsettled and unspoken feeling of dread surrounding this play. Perhaps it can be chalked up to current world events seeping into the psyche, but in any case, don’t come expecting laughs. Discerning fact from fiction is the crux of “The Crucible,” as is coercing bewitched “victims” to name their tormentors in what passes as a form of justice, but in fact is a farcical exercise in the inner workings of the mean girls’ lunch table. High school students (and scarred adults) will probably recognize that fact — and they will also know the fakers when they see them. While Abigail Williams is definitely depicted as the villain here, like many complex characters, she is also a victim. After all, John Proctor is the adulterer, but it is she who gets blamed. No wonder she responds by naming names.
It all goes far beyond politics or religion. In the end, there is something deeply unsettling — and vaguely unsatisfying — about Miller’s script. It’s as if he still has unfinished business. The unease that lurks at the edges of “The Crucible” makes sense, given that it was written in 1953, in the midst of the “Red Scare” and the House Un-American Activities Committee that dragged countless U.S. citizens, primarily those involved in the entertainment business, before congress in an effort to get “sinners” to confess their past ties to communism (be they real or imagined) and offer names of others who were there. With “The Crucible” Miller, who was one of those compelled to appear before the committee, makes no apologies for his disdain of government interference in the lives of citizens unjustly accused.
It’s telling that in “The Crucible,” it’s not in the light of day in a court of law, but under the shadow of darkness where the truth is revealed. And in their fervent effort to ban the devil from their midst, these misguided souls of Salem have, instead welcomed him in.
With an authoritative presidential candidate using his voice and vowing to exact revenge on political enemies should he win the White House in 2024, it’s wise to consider 1690s Salem, not as a piece of historical fiction, but as a mirror. The reflection is our own, and while we may not like it, at this important juncture in our democracy, it’s vital we not look away.
“The Crucible” runs through November 26 at Bay Street Theater. Shows are Thursday and Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Additional matinees will be offered over Thanksgiving weekend, November 24 to 26, at 2 p.m. starting at $37 at baystreet.org or 631-725-9500. Bay Street Theater is on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor.
One fine body…