By Manning Harris
Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” directed by Jeffrey Watkins, currently being performed by the Shakespeare Tavern, through Nov. 1, may be the most theatrical and dramatically powerful play of Miller’s oeuvre. I know that “Death of a Salesman” is probably his greatest work, but of course these things are always subjective.
Neither play should be done unless you have truly fine actors, and I’ll say upfront that therein lies the glory of the Tavern’s production.
You probably know that “The Crucible” deals with witchcraft hysteria as an allegory for the anti-communist panic of the early 1950’s when Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities was blacklisting accused communists right and left.
But you know what? You could easily immerse yourself in the terror and hysteria of the Salem witch trials, which really happened and are the subject of this play even if you knew nothing of McCarthyism.
In 1692-1693 in the Province of Massachusetts at least 19 people, accused of witchcraft, were hanged. Miller’s play shows the poisonous power of fear, accusation, and hysteria.
A group of girls dance at night in the forest with Tituba (Tetrianna Silas), a black slave who is said to have the power to commune with the dead. They are caught by Reverend Parris (Drew Reeves), whose daughter Betty (Hayley Platt), one of the girls, falls into a coma. Parris questions Abigail Williams (Rachel Frawley), the girls’ leader, but she claims they were only dancing.
Nevertheless, rumors of witchcraft begin spreading like wildfire. John Proctor (Matt Nitchie), a farmer, arrives to converse with Abigail, with whom he had a brief affair the previous year. She would like to continue the liaison, but he now regrets it and wishes stability with his wife Elizabeth (Mary Russell).
Meanwhile, Reverend Hale (Paul Hester), an “expert” on witchcraft, arrives to examine Betty and quiz Abigail and Tituba. This is where the hysterical naming of names (of who is a witch) begins, and soon the powerful, sinister Deputy Governor Danforth (Troy Willis) arrives and a frenzy of accusations ensue. It’s a frightening thing to observe the accused girls screaming their paranoid accusations; are they so caught up in their collective zealotry that they believe their own stories, or are they just good liars?
The plot continues to thicken, but that’s all I’m saying here. There are other characters, extremely well-played: Giles Corey (Doug Kaye); Martha Corey (Pat Bell); Mary Warren (Amanda Lindsey); Mercy Lewis (Kathryn Lawson); Susanna (Sarah Beth Moseley); Francis Nurse (J. Tony Brown); Rebecca Nurse (Jane Bass); Hathorne (Andrew Houchins); Cheever (Vinnie Mascola); and Herrick (Trey York).
As you can see, it’s a large cast, and they are committed to Miller’s work, their characters, and to giving you a thrilling performance. Occasionally (one small quibble) certain words or phrases are a bit muddled, perhaps because the characters have only been in (what is now) the United States for about 70 years; they’re from the old country: England. But in the main, the articulation is just fine.
It is hard not to despise Mr. Willis’ Danforth (especially) and Ms. Frawley’s Abigail; but that’s because their villainous characters are so well played.
The hero of the piece is Matt Nitchie’s John Proctor; it’s a tour de force performance. I would almost say that Mr. Nitchie’s work by itself is worth the price of admission; he’s unforgettable.
One more thing: the play is recommended by the Suzi Bass committee—always a good sign.
For tickets and information, visit shakespearetavern.com.