Midnight, the witching hour, a time that William Shakespeare’s conflicted Prince Hamlet saw “churchyards yawn and hell itself breathe out contagion to the world.”
That’s exactly what happens in Arthur Miller’s classic tale of hysteria and extremism gone amok, “The Crucible,” just now in extraordinary revival at Matthew LaChiusa’s American Repertory Theater of Western New York, a basement venue perfect for the telling of dark and disturbing business.
Dark it is. Based on a true story, the time is 1692, the scene is the Massachusetts Bay Colony, specifically the village of Salem, a bastion of Puritanism, its residents both devoted to and afraid of the Lord God. One late night, a gaggle of teenage girls led by Abigail Williams gathered for a woodsy, ritualistic fireside dance – some say sans clothes – and there were, according to a hiding witness, the Reverend Parris, strange contortions, flailing arms, unworldly sounds and overall “iniquitous behavior.”
Soon after, the Reverend’s daughter, Betty, fainted and remained nearly comatose, causing great uproar in the town and almost immediate panic. Surely, Satan had paid an unwelcome visit to Salem in disguise, demonizing the innocent. The term “witch hunt” was probably born that night.
Among the doubters, particularly those familiar with the manipulative Abigail and impressionable young girls in general, was John Proctor, a hardworking, honest farmer; Giles Corey, town elder; and stalwart Rebecca Nurse. When “expert” help in determining if witchcraft was afoot in Salem arrived in the person of studious Reverend Hale, the townsfolk began to see Lucifer in everything and everybody. Neighbor turned against neighbor, old grudges resurfaced, jealousies proliferated. Hale, well-meaning but naïve, made things worse. The girls first exaggerated, then lied. Accusations flew – the accusers encouraged to “name names” – arrests followed. Any peccadillo was mistaken for witchery. Sin was wildly, uncontrollably on the loose in Salem.
It got worse. Death warrants were signed in bunches – history tells us that the final execution count was 28 people including Proctor, Corey and Nurse, and two dogs as well. Hundreds more languished in prison, falsely accused, some dying there.
Playwright Miller played fast and loose with what history has recorded in “The Crucible,” his characters real but in some cases composites. Proctor’s described affair with Abigail – key to the charges against him – is unlikely due to actual age differences.
Fascinating, though, is the unmistakable parallel of the Salem hysteria with the 1950’s House Un-American Activities Committee, chaired by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in extreme, find-the-commies fervor. Miller was caught up in it, subpoenaed and questioned along with many other literati and eventually cleared of any communist involvement, but not before being asked to, a la Salem, “name names.” For a while, a career tainted.
ART asked the astute Drew McCabe to direct “The Crucible,” which is indeed a cautionary tale. It was a brilliant idea, resulting in sage and superb work in a challenging space with a cast of 20 coming and going seamlessly on an Oriental-looking set (puzzling, the design is open to discussion). The story is told by some of the area’s top actors at the top of their game. This is electric, riveting theater.
If there have been more complete portrayals brought to life in the past several years on a Buffalo stage than Thomas LaChiusa’s John Proctor – a true tragic hero – and Christopher Standart’s presiding law officer, the deadly efficient Deputy Governor Danforth, my memory fails. LaChiusa’s wary and worried work, as he heads for the gallows if he doesn’t sign a false statement of devil worship, and Standart’s disciplined martinet’s judge and jury combined, are performances to be remembered. Impeccable.
Central others, each stellar, include Lisa Vitrano, Steve Brachmann, Sara Marioles Mitch (as temptress Abigail), Scot Kaitanowski, Jenny McCabe, Victor Morales, David Mitchell, Virginia Brannon, Shayna Raichilson-Zadok, Michael Breen, Danica Riddick and a cadre of bogus witches and various villagers. Excellent casting from top to bottom.
The play also is a logistical marvel; Katie Ludwig’s lighting designs are vital.
What: “The Crucible”
Where: Church of the Ascension, 18 Linwood Ave.