By Eva Truncellito
The Crucible is a powerful reminder of how fragile human rights can be in the face of ignorance. The Rider cast and crew brought Arthur Miller’s play to life in a chilling performance last week that is especially timely in a period of political polarization when “you’re either for us or against us” has become a litmus test for patriotism.
Under the able direction of Trent Blanton, assistant professor of performing arts, Rider’s production pulls the audience into the claustrophobic world in which the characters struggle to hold onto any type of moral compass.
The Crucible is based on the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s. Abigail Williams (junior Melissa Saint-Amand) is the ringleader of a group of young girls who whip their town into a frenzy when they claim to be under attack by the devil inhabiting various townspeople. The girls are, of course, simply playacting and feeding on the attention and power it brings them.
They are also boosted by the religious ignorance of the times and egged on by several greedy citizens looking to cash in on real estate forfeited by claims of witchcraft against the landowners.
However, fear takes over and things get out of control, as few people are willing to speak out. In fact, the situation feeds off of itself because the only way for those accused of witchcraft to avoid death is to blame others and claim that those people are also guilty of the crime. The spiral effect engulfs the community in a reign of terror in which the possession of a doll, the presence of a frog or even the timing of a sneeze takes on disproportionate significance as an indicator of the crime.
The cast delivers the somewhat-stilted language of the time period very naturally so that the audience cannot easily dismiss the play as simply bygone history. The play is a bit wordy, but the performance moves along at a crisp pace to keep the audience focused on the developing conflicts.
Miller wrote The Crucible in reaction to the McCarthy hearings of the early 1950s. According to The Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller by Christopher Bigsby, the play is not simply about either Salem or even McCarthyism. The overriding theme is the danger of “handing over of conscience to another.” The success of the Rider production is in capturing this essence of Miller’s play, while managing to add personal touches and make slight changes to keep the audience intrigued.
Although Miller’s original play included several lengthy narrations describing individual characters, the Rider production wisely drops these to avoid giving the performance the feel of a historical documentary.
The action of the play revolves chiefly around John Proctor (junior Dan Argese) and the choice he must make between fighting back against the witchcraft proceedings or giving into them. It does not help that he has had an affair with the underaged Abigail, who now seems intent on getting rid of Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth (sophomore Kelsey Carroll), by accusing her of witchcraft.
Argese leads the superb cast by giving a balanced performance that captures both the weak side of Proctor as well as his inner strength. Carroll avoids the mistake of playing Elizabeth as too mousy, instead rising to meet Proctor as they face their moral choices together. Saint-Amand tackles the difficult role of Abigail in a sultry and conniving way that exudes evil but still makes Proctor’s attraction to her understandable.
As the local preacher Rev. Parris, sophomore Matthew Fairlee brings out the weasel in his character but always remains a dangerous rather than laughable figure. Freshman Kyle Geraghty convincingly shifts in his portrayal of Rev. John Hale from naïve witch hunter at the start of the play to skeptic by the end. Sophomore Ethan Daniel Levy injects a level of creepiness in his role of the principle inquisitor Deputy Governor Danforth as he struts about with a veneer of rationality during the witchcraft proceedings and then scrambles to make a deal with Proctor to avoid having to admit any mistake as the trials unravel.
Other notable performances in the cast include junior Destyne Pitts as the slave Tituba, who is partially responsible for getting the bandwagon rolling by pointing fingers elsewhere when she is accused of witchery. Senior Alexandra Boyle portrays Mary Warren and vacillates between lies and truth as one of the accusing girls. Sophomore John Beirne as Giles Corey refuses even up to the minute of his death to give the proceedings any credence.
The set design and lighting in this production are outstanding examples of how creative stage visuals can make a production succeed. The timelessness of Miller’s message is matched by the simplicity of the set, which consists of large beams that hover over the action rather than literal cabins or town halls. The beams create a heavy, prison-like atmosphere, with cross beams occasionally lit to show the image of a crucifix.
The staging confirms that the story is not about any one place, but about all places where government and religion lose their benevolent functions and instead become monoliths of fear. Westminster College of the Arts produced an exemplary interpretation of Miller’s classic and the lessons still resonate to this day.
View an excerpt of Rider’s performance of The Crucible.