Categorized | Arts, Community

Witch Hunts Then and Now

Posted on 14 November 2012

The accused of “The Crucible” shortly before judgement day. (Michael Heller photo)

By Annette Hinkle

Humans are unique among mammals in many ways — chief among them in their ability to speak. Communication among the species is an amazing skill. Used for negotiation and the betterment of society, it’s a gift some might say confirms mankind’s connection to God.

But it’s also is an ability that has been a source of great evil throughout the ages. It’s safe to say far more damage has been inflicted upon the world by the simple wagging of tongues than any natural disasters that may (or may not) have been wrought by a supreme being.

Gossip, slander, threats, bullying — these are among our most powerful weapons and often most effective when shared as a whisper.

Deciphering fact from fiction is at the heart of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” — and rarely has the ability to speak caused so much trouble and misery on stage. The play is currently being offered at Bay Street Theatre as part of the theater’s Literature Live! program which brings books from school curricula to life, both for students and adults.

Set in Salem, Mass. circa 1692, in “The Crucible,” the action begins with a group of young women who have just taken part in a questionable ritual around a fire in the woods with Tituba, the Barbadian slave of Rev. Samuel Parris (Ken Forman).

When she arrives home, Rev. Parris tells his niece, Abigail Williams (Joanna Howard), that he saw her, his daughter Betty and other girls dancing in the woods and even running naked. Betty, has since fallen seriously ill and with talk of witchcraft in the village, he fears things might be spinning out of his control.

Sure enough, as the clergy in charge, it doesn’t take long before others are at his door — including Ann and Thomas Putnam (played by Kate Mueth and Al Bundonis) who have lost seven newborn children “to the devil.” Their only surviving daughter is now ill as well and nearly comatose since returning from the woods that evening. Also on the scene is John Proctor (Rob DiSario), whose housemaid Mary Warren (Kate O’Phalen) was one of the girls in the woods along with Abigail and Mercy Lewis (Mackenzie Engeldrum).

Though the girls have professed innocence and have concocted a cover story, with witchcraft suspected, the Rev. John Hale (Peter Connolly) — an expert on such matters — is summoned from a neighboring town to investigate. Meanwhile, in a moment alone Abigail and Proctor reveal a recent affair which is over for him, but something Abigail desperately wants to continue.

Once Rev. Hale is on the scene and starts quizzing the girls, alibis crumble and matters quickly escalate. Under pressure, denials turn into mass hysteria and soon a flurry of confessions fly from the mouths of all three girls and the names of several of Salem’s citizens are linked to visions of the devil.

Initially, it’s those at the edge of acceptable society who are accused — but when Deputy Governor Danforth (Joel Leffert) comes to town to begin prosecuting the cases, the girls ratchet up their performance by throwing far more upstanding citizens into the fire — including the incorruptible Rebecca Nurse (Lisa Cory) and John Proctor’s pregnant wife, Elizabeth (Chloe Dirksen), whom Abigail would like to eliminate as a rival.

Meanwhile, Danforth bases evidence of witchcraft on questionable methods of deduction — such as knowledge of the 10 commandments or frequency of church attendance. Those that would deny a belief in witchcraft are also immediately suspect. When John Proctor finally convinces Mary Warren to come clean and admit the false accusations in the presence of Danforth, the ruse is about to crumble. But Abigail and Mercy quickly turn on her and start sharing visions of Mary with the devil — she has no choice but to join in and all three are soon chanting John Proctor’s name as well.

This powerful production, which is directed by Bay Street’s artistic director Murphy Davis, features a top-notch cast who really bring the material to life. Their passion is palpable and audience members can’t help but feel the oppression that must have been 17th century puritan society. Likewise, Gary Hygom’s timber laden set evokes 17th century Salem with an authentic air complete with creaky wooden floors and stark furniture.

Particularly effective is the suggestion of the woods referenced on the back wall of the stage and supplemented with low level lighting. A bed of dead leaves at the perimeter of the stage provides a natural setting for clandestine meetings beyond the watchful eyes of puritanical society — either for a group of girls dancing around a cauldron, or a married man trying to severe ties to an obsessed mistress. The sounds of owls hooting around the theater add to the mystery and the sense that in many ways the wilds are safer than what is occurring within the confines of “civilized” society.

For many audience members, on its surface, the idea of a judicial system that encourages the turning in of others in order to “save thyself” may seem ridiculous —  until you remember that it has happened before — and not that long ago.

With a script based on the real-life Salem witch trials of the 1690s, in “The Crucible” Miller was offering a thinly veiled treatise on McCarthyism. In the 1950s, Miller was among the many actors, directors and writers caught up in the most famous “witch hunt” of the 20th century and was pressed to “name names” on Capitol Hill in front of the House’s Committee on Un-American Activities.

The goal, of course, was to root out communism in the midst of the Cold War. But the result of McCarthyism was that it shone a bright light on the mass hysteria and groundless accusations that could ruin lives and destroy a country as the result of the fervor of a single man.

Beyond the politics of the script, however in the illicit relationship between Abigail Williams and John Proctor, the play also offers another important lesson for both high school students and adults that often reflects life today. The notion of revenge and the power of a well-placed lie — be it in the form of spoken words, FaceBook posts or text messages.

“The Crucible” is part of the school curriculum for most high school juniors, and while this version of the play is scaled down to 90 minutes to allow for school field trips, this is not an easy play for the younger set — say, those under 13. The density of the language and the complexity of the plot, combined with the character’s changing motives and the way in which the girls quickly suppress the truth when it threatens to expose them is material far beyond the grasp of many younger kids.

Though unfortunately, it’s territory that today’s teenagers likely understand all too well. Luckily, with “The Crucible,” Bay Street Theatre offers a top-notch production that will help students not only navigate high school literature — but life as well.

Bay Street Theatre’s Literature Live! presentation of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” runs through Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, November 24. Weekday performance times for school groups and the public vary. Additional public performances are Fridays and Saturdays on November 16, 17, 23 and 24 at 7 p.m. with a matinee Saturday, November 24 at 2 p.m. Suggested for ages 13 and up and tickets are $20 ($10 for students). Bay Street Theatre, which is on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor, will be donating 10 percent of all tickets sales for the public performances to Island Harvest, an organization collecting money and food specifically for Long Island hurricane victims. To reserve tickets, call 725-9500. Those interested in supporting the Literature Live! program can make donations online at www.baystreet.org or by calling Jessica Lemire at 725-0818.

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