Arthur Miller’s 1953 tale of lethal mendacity, in a new production at ACT Theatre, seems sadly current — indeed, timeless.
Truth is obliterated by a blizzard of lies and betrayals. Falsehoods destroy individuals and families. Smug piety masks gross hypocrisy.
As Arthur Miller dramatizes in “The Crucible,” that was life in the village of Salem, Massachusetts, during the 1692 witch trials. Among the women there accused of sorcery at the time, 19 were executed.
Several centuries later, Miller seized on that fascinating historical event as a metaphor for a new reign of terror that impacted him personally and professionally: the rabid campaign to root out and blacklist Communists from Hollywood and other prominent arenas of American life.
By Arthur Miller. Through Nov. 12 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; tickets start at $20 (206-292-7676 or acttheatre.org)
Watching his 1953 play “The Crucible” today, in a stark, stirring new production at ACT Theatre, this tale of lethal mendacity seems sadly current — indeed, timeless, as the spare, unspecific set design by Matthew Smucker and Deb Trout’s modern-ish costumes suggest.
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Though characters bear names of real victims and villains in the Salem trials, Miller took dramatic license to add sex and greed as motivations, and pure love as a route to redemption.
Under John Langs’ direction, the mass hysteria stirred up in Salem by repressed adolescent girls is conveyed forcefully, at fever pitch, as are the chilling court proceedings that followed.
Miller invents a parallel story of farmer John Proctor (Paul Morgan Stetler) trying to repair relations with his virtuous but aloof wife, Elizabeth (Khanh Dohn). Their marriage has been severely strained by John’s past adultery with young Abigail Williams (Sylvie Davidson) — who, with vengeful calculation, accuses Elizabeth of witchcraft.
Abigail leads the teenage cabal of witch-shamers. They are abetted by grasping neighbors, Puritan ministers like the self-serving the Rev. Parris (MJ Sieber) and visiting court officials with their own agendas. Kurt Beattie oozes venality as the imperious “hanging” judge, Deputy Governor Danforth, who pompously gives the condemned “the perfection of their punishment.”
Crying foul at their own peril are a few local farmers and voices of sanity, principally Proctor and the crusty elder Giles Corey (a ruggedly endearing William Hall Jr.).
Stetler’s clenched, glowering Proctor instantly sees through the girls’ feigned fits of agitation and tussles with Satan, used to justify their own “sin” of dancing naked in the woods. This solid actor could add more textures to his portrayal, but he convincingly presents Proctor not as the hero he becomes, but as an earthy, conflicted man whose core of integrity won’t let him publicly implicate innocents to save his own neck.
“Naming names,” the mechanism of many a witch hunt, also becomes a visual motif here. As people are charged with sorcery, their names are scrawled on a back wall, until there’s little space left.
In addition to its clarity and electric pacing, the strength of ACT’s production is the sense of an interdependent community disintegrating as it “purges” itself of “demons” — mainly mature women, like the wise elder Rebecca Nurse, played with glowing dignity by Marianne Owen, and the Afro-Caribbean slave Tituba (Shermona Mitchell).
The show’s few weaknesses stem from shortcomings in Miller’s at times preachy and melodramatic script. For instance, Abigail is herself treated as a kind of hussy- demon. Davidson aces her jealousy and deviousness, and raw lust, but the script and staging barely reflect on what makes this cast-off, desperately needy orphan tick.
Miller actually faced his own witch-baiting dilemma in 1956, when called to testify by the House Un-American Activities Committee. After refusing to identify friends and colleagues as members of the Communist Party, or other leftist groups, he was found guilty of contempt of Congress and denied a passport. The verdict was later overturned.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the actor who played Tituba. A previous version of this story also stated incorrectly that Tituba was “the only person of color in sight.” While Tituba was the one primary black character in Miller’s play, as written, the ACT Theatre production’s cast included several people of color.