The Crucible by legendary American playwright Arthur Miller pillories McCarthyism in all its insidious forms: from the infamous witch hunt in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692; to Tail Gunner Joe and his cohort’s anti-communist witch hunt in Washington, DC, from the late 1940s to the late 1950s; to Mike Nifong’s outrageous prosecutorial misconduct in Durham, NC, in 2006-07. Indeed, McCarthyism is the still-timely topic of this incendiary 1953 drama, which the High Point, NC-based North Carolina Shakespeare Festival performed Oct. 5th and 6th in A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh. Wherever a kangaroo court pops up its ugly head to railroad the innocent into prison or onto the scaffold, there is that form of governmental malfeasance that takes its name from the guilt-by-association tactics employed by the late, not so great U.S. Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wisconsin).
The NCSF’s riveting rendition of The Crucible, brilliantly staged by director Geoffrey Hitch, starred John Woodson as hard-working yeoman farmer John Proctor, a veritable Everyman in Colonial America, who finds his hard-scrabble but peaceful existence shattered when his saucy former serving girl Abigail Williams (Rhyn McLemore), is caught dancing with her friends — some in their clothes, some in their underwear, and at least one in her Birthday Suit — in the woods by Williams’ priggish uncle, Salem’s egotistic and increasingly unpopular pastor, the Rev. Samuel Parris (Allan Edwards).
The chastened and very, very frightened girls — Williams, the Proctors’ current serving girl Mary Warren (Ambien Mitchell), the Rev. Parris’ daughter Betty (Megan Oots), and the Putnams’ serving girl Mercy Lewis (Gisela Chipe), in particular — lay the blame for their shocking behavior at the feet of the Parris family slave, Tituba (LaShon R. Hill), who learned how to conjure spirits in her native Barbados. They claim that Tituba was trying to call up the Devil and other evil spirits to bring mischief and death to the God-fearing residents of Salem.
Soon, a seasoned church investigator, the Rev. John Hale (David Foubert) of the nearby town of Beverly, arrives in town to interrogate the girls. His preliminary findings bring Massachusetts Deputy-Governor and Judge Danforth (Graham Smith) and Judge Hathorne (Tim Austin) to Salem, in February 1692, to set up a court that quickly becomes the vehicle for a witch hunt as the frightened girls blame Tituba for leading them down the proverbial Garden Path, neighbor accuses neighbor to settle personal grudges, and the court throws nearly everyone who disagrees with it or disputes its authority into jail. Before the court adjourned in May 1693, it arrested and imprisoned more than 150 people, hanged 19 of them (14 women and five men), and pressed Giles Corey (played here by Lucius Houghton) to death when he refused to enter a plea. Five other people died in prison.
Could the same thing happen today? Just ask the three Duke University lacrosse players who found their own personal Salem witch hunt in Durham.
In the NCSF production of The Crucible, John Woodson as John Proctor gives eloquent voice to what happens when a good man, despite a terrible secret, steps forward to try to stop the railroading of his frigid but innocent wife Elizabeth (Sara Valentine), his friend Giles Corey, and even 70ish pillar of the church Rebecca Nurse (Lesley Hunt) by out-of-control judges who double as prosecutors and answer to no one.
Woodson is especially good at expressing John Proctor’s anguish at his horrible predicament. To clear his wife, he must publicly confess to adultery with hot-blooded Abigail Williams.
Sara Valentine adds a gritty portrait of poor, unhappy Elizabeth Proctor; and Rhyn McLemore steals the show with her wonderfully wicked, wide-eyed impersonation of Abigail Williams, who wrongly thinks that if she can eliminate Elizabeth Proctor from his life, John Proctor will return to her bed. David Foubert is also excellent as the conscience-stricken Rev. Hale, Graham Smith is a pip as demonic Deputy-Governor and hanging Judge Danforth, and LaShon R. Hill makes an auspicious NCSF debut as the slave Tituba. Also giving praiseworthy performances are Allan Edwards as the insufferable Rev. Parris, Megan Oots as his temperamental daughter Betty, Lucius Houghton as litigious farmer Giles Corey, Lesley Hunt as the venerable Rebecca Nurse, Ambien Mitchell as the troubled Mary Warren, and Gisela Chipe as the unrepentant Mercy Lewis.
Mark Lazar and Mary Jellicorse are good as wealthy landowner Thomas Putnam and his wife, Ann, who sanctimoniously exploit their neighbors’ misfortunes for their own benefit; and Tim Austin as Judge Danforth, Willie Repoley as creepy court officer Ezekiel Cheever, and Alex Amery as hard-drinking jailer John Willard make vivid impressions in cameo roles.
Employing a minimum of furniture and scenery, director Geoffrey Hitch superbly streamlines the action on the multilevel Renaissance set devised by Brad Archer; lighting designer Todd Wren helps Hitch keep the dramatic focus exactly where it should be at all times; and costume designer Laura Simcox creates a striking wardrobe of late 17th century Colonial costumes for the inhabitants of Salem. All in all, this North Carolina Shakespeare Festival presentation of The Crucible is a real stem-winder and the unquestioned highlight of the High Point theater troupe’s all-too-brief Raleigh residency.
North Carolina Shakespeare Festival: http://www.ncshakes.org/. NCSF Study Guide: http://www.ncshakes.org/uploads/TheCrucible_StudyGuide2007.doc [inactivce 12/07]. The Crucible: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=2847 (Internet Broadway Database) and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050997/ (Internet Movie Database). Arthur Miller: http://www.arthurmiller.org/ (an official web site) [inactive 5/08] and http://www.ibiblio.org/miller/ (The Arthur Miller Society).