From witchy hysteria to the Red Scare to anti-vax lunacy, Arthur Miller’s classic rings true across the years
Not too long ago, I was texting with a couple of old friends about the seemingly unfathomable decision by millions of Americans to risk death by COVID rather than get a vaccine. “It’s like the delusion of the Salem witch trials, writ large,” I wrote.
How does any group of people come to believe something so obviously untrue? Whether it’s people denying COVID with their dying breath or a small community in Massachusetts falling prey to satanic delusions, the answer – if there even is one – typically involves things like herd behavior, politics, religion, prejudice and other unknowable factors.
Many have drawn parallels between Arthur Miller’s classic play The Crucible and their own time. But it does seem to have a particularly poignant relevance today, as we fall ever further into tribalism, finger-pointing and the aforementioned delusions of one segment of our population bent on living in another dimension of truth. If The Crucible is, in part, a parable about a community tearing itself in two, it’s easy to draw a line from that to the binary, self-destructive America of today.
Miller wrote the play in the early 1950s as a statement against McCarthyism, and his choice of using the witch trials as allegory was spot-on — America’s seminal conspiracy theory that resulted in the deaths or persecution of real, innocent people. When I heard Miners Alley was mounting a new production of The Crucible, I was curious to see it again as a piece of theatre but also to see how much its message aligns with what we’re witnessing today.
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A-team of a cast
Director Len Matheo divided the plays four acts into two 90-minute blocks, with an intermission between them (always a good thing to take advantage of MAP’s well-stocked bar). We’re not necessarily in Salem; the time period is alluded to with some of the costume pieces, although bits of modern dress are mixed in while some other items — like the guns — are clearly not 17th century. Another sharp departure comes later in the play, when Jason Maxwell as the town marshal’s deputy Willard shows up with zip ties on his belt.
How’s that for a jarring link to today?
The absence of too much fretting over making the production look period was a good call, as it allowed the audience to focus more on the script itself while simultaneously erasing the years between then and now as a nod to the never-changing nature of things. This could happy anywhere, in any time.
Matheo drew deep in the Colorado talent pool and emerged with a cast that delivered some truly memorable performances. Jihad Milhem plays John Proctor with an intelligent and believable portrayal of an emotional journey of a flawed but decent man pushed to an impossible choice, set against the background of a group of people who grow ever more mystifying to him.
Rebakah Goldberg has the plum role of Abigail Williams, whose affair with Proctor fuels much of what transpires in Salem. Goldberg commands the stage in almost every scene she’s in, her eerie blend of maidenly charm and spiteful malevolence driving a performance that stands out in an all-around excellent cast. Her nemesis is Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth, played with emotional bravura by Anastasia Davidson. (She also doubles at the top of the show as the “possessed” daughter of town pastor.)
Another standout is Jim Walker as the witchcraft expert Reverend Hale, whose transition from religion scold who sees Satan everywhere to horrified witness to a town gone mad is steady and compelling. Jordan Leigh, as the deputy governor Danforth come to run the trial, does yeoman’s work as one of the original patriarchal assholes who still plague the country — a man hewing to whatever absurd party line he’s charged with enforcing while his own ego disables him from ever seeing the light.
The hits keep coming with this group. Simone St. John plays both the slave Tituba and Rebecca Nurse and her husband Francis Nurse with equal passion, while Sam Gilstrap fully inhabits the role of Giles Corey — Proctor’s farmer-neighbor who ultimately ends up being crushed to death rather than confess to false claims that he trafficked with the devil.
I’d also call out the role of court clerk Ezekiel Cheever, who has the unenviable job of showing up with arrest warrants to the incredulous townsfolk. Jason Maxwell plays Cheever as a whiny everyman, a put-upon servant who just wants people to shut the fuck up and submit to the court. (Maybe it’s a stretch but Maxwell’s performance reminded me of the shuffling weasel Chris Elliott plays in Schitt’s Creek.) It’s a great example of an accomplished actor doing such nice work with a smaller role that it elevates the whole production.
Working the moments
Arthur Miller’s plays may seem heavy sledding to some, and they’re not easy to cast and produce given the complexities of the characters and the high level of acting required. This production comes across as a labor of love on the part of Matheo, who clearly sweated every moment of every scene to maximize its impact. Despite being as long as most full plays, Act One flies by as the bizarre doings of Salem’s citizens are revealed. Act Two is more of a long-haul, as Miller’s script takes the cast to dark places where no good choices exist and we’re left to watch as each character decides their path.
The Crucible is often performed by high school drama departments as an exemplar of a great American play, although its tragic outcomes and overall length perhaps dissuade it from being seen more broadly. But classics are classic for a reason, and here’s one from the great American canon that stands the test of time very well. It was a treat to see it given the benefit of a full, professional production in the intimate space of Miners Alley.