Fort Worth — A community on edge, fearing threats from unseen enemies. Neighbors polarized by faith and politics, barely speaking to people they’ve known for years. A frenzy of suspicion and rumor, fed by “chatter” that rises—24/7—from everywhere and nowhere at once. State and church blurring the lines, each looking to profit from citizens’ fears. Interrogation, torment, and bogus confessions—all in the shadow of the prison door and the hangman’s noose.
How would it feel to live at a time, in a world, in which Arthur Miller’s The Crucible—a modern-day study of the Salem witch trials and executions of the late 1600s—no longer felt relevant? On the play’s 50th anniversary in 2003, even Miller himself said he couldn’t see that happening.
Miller’s classic opens a second season for the Tarrant Actors Regional Theatre (TART) at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center. The production is directed by company founder Allen Walker—and scores impressively. This Crucible, anchored in a rock-solid performance by Brad Stephens as John Proctor (and with outstanding work from several other players in this cast of 20), gets the patient handling it needs to reveal the play’s curious double life: it both draws us into the history of the piece—Salem in 1692, peopled by characters who actually lived—and keeps us alertly observant, standing to one side of the action and feeling completely, teeth-grindingly aware of its many links to our own times, our own issues and fears.
It’s a satisfying step up for this young company: they’ve taken one of American theater’s Big Dogs out for a walk—and lived to tell the tale.
For those new to the play, The Crucible opens just as the town of Salem begins to arrest and convict first dozens—and then hundreds—of its citizens for witchcraft. The first accusers are a clutch of girls and young women who finger-point neighbors (many of them churchgoing older women) for using demonic powers in the town, and who become New England celebrities as the trials go on. Others follow, seeking revenge and profit (neighbors denounce neighbors as a way to take over their land). The town and its trials draw the attention of religious and state officials, who fuel fears as a way to maintain power. Once accused, citizens find the court uninterested in evidence or arguments that might prove innocence. Everyone is guilty—and confession is the only way to escape death.
Not all the citizens go quietly.
Stephens plays the independent-minded Proctor, a quiet-living farmer who grows angry as accusations point to neighbors. But he and wife Elizabeth (Karen Matheny) are trying to heal a wounded marriage, and Proctor knows he might have to reveal shameful secrets to defend his friends. Stephens' and Matheny’s cool reserve becomes more complex with each scene; this couple—both of them the strong, silent type—grow into a love and respect that is hard-won, and we worry about their future together.
Robert Banks is gripping and eminently hate-able as Deputy Governor Danforth, determined to keep the trials going as a show of state power that has little to do with justice. You’re either “with this court” or against it, he says; and he insists that no innocent person should be afraid: “The pure of heart need no lawyers.” As the chief accuser (and the Proctor’s former servant) Abigail, Jule Nelson Duac is more than a bit frightening, her wild accusations concealing a cool determination to have her way in all things. Laura Lester is a timid and unsteady Mary Warren, part of Abigail’s chilling chorus of accusers; we watch as her fear of Abby’s vengeance overwhelms her desire to speak truth. And La’Netia D. Taylor is memorable as Tituba, the Barbados slave whose “conjuring” of spirits in the woods—it it playful or diabolic?—sparks Salem’s troubles.
Eric Dobbins leaves us both cynical and sympathetic as the Reverend John Hale, a seemingly sensible young scholar who arrives in Salem to deal with the crisis. As events progress, we believe Hale knows many are innocent—but he either can’t make himself fight hard enough for truth, or believes his efforts would only land him in jail, too. Doug Parker is the grasping and self-absorbed town preacher, Reverend Samuel Parris, whose quarrels with local church members color his views of who might be doing “the devil’s work.”
Walker’s straightforward staging of the play is especially effective in its most frenzied moments, as the quartet of “child” accusers create a wild chaos of voices. We find it almost impossible to catch their words, but the intent is clear: to beat back every attempt at a sane consideration of the issues.
The plays opens on a set of pyramidal closed doors, one with the line of a black noose running ominously down one edge. Set design on a shoestring is the art of the affordable, of course—but it’s hard to tell if the curious combination of vintage rooms (a Puritan bedroom or hearth) with a minimalist/modernist courtroom is intentional time-traveling, or simply what designers Alex Krus and Bryan S. Douglas could make happen. Cast members pitch in as stagehands, moving flats and furnishings between scenes. And Walker continues his habit of scoring parts of the play to music—a bit more effectively with this production, however.
The Crucible appears to have an infinite ability to absorb “current events” from the air itself, and to blow our own troubled world right back into our faces. Whatever the spirit of the age—from the aptly named McCarthy “witch hunts” of the 1950s, to modern-day wars fought for fear of Al Qaeda and its offspring—our lives continue to be shaped (or perhaps distorted) by these waking terrors, and by our willingness to trade away rights and freedom for a promise of safety.
We are, in sober truth, still living in our own crucible—that place of heat and testing—with the ultimate outcome very much in doubt.