THE PROCTORS Stephen Thorne and Angela Brazil in The Crucible.
Arthur Miller's The Crucible was a seminal work of American theater, taking a shameful passage of history — the Salem witch trials of the late 17th century — and melding it in the audience's consciousness with a contemporary parallel — the Red Scare hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which prompted a Hollywood blacklist of suspects.
Trinity Repertory Company is staging The Crucible February 4 to March 13, and its director, Brian McEleney, thinks the play is, unfortunately, particularly appropriate for us today. He came to that conclusion a year and a half ago when he and Trinity artistic director Curt Columbus were considering what to stage this season.
"It was during the time when all those health-care town meetings were going on," he says. "And people were screaming and shouting, and every manner of lie was being shouted from the housetops, and it was just chaos. I said, 'Well, that's The Crucible if there ever was The Crucible.' "
The play is about a time when the church and state were the same in America, when Massachusetts was a theocracy.
"It's dangerous conflating those two things, law and religion — one of the points of the play is that nobody really knows the truth, and when we behave as though we do, we get into trouble," McEleney points out. "The play is telling us to be very careful about the way that we deal with the truth. The play is asking us to be very careful about, to use a current phrase, the level of discourse that we engage in."
The director wants audiences to understand that the value of the play is not simply its political message, but also that it is a compelling drama.
"It's so well written, and the characters are so amazing," he says. "John Proctor is a flawed hero, and we watch him go from somebody who really doesn't want to be a hero, from somebody who has done something really bad, which is the predicating event of this play: he had sex with his teenage servant. That was the basic cause of all of this. Then he has to step up to the plate and take responsibility."
In considering how to present the story, McEleney started thinking about how effective and immediate the production of The Laramie Project Revisited had been recently, staged simply by Brown/Trinity theater students, without a lot of scenery.
"It was done just with actors getting up and giving voice to characters," he recalled. "I said, 'That's what political theater should look like, it should look like we're just seizing the moment, with a minimum of spectacle, a minimum of production values.' "
So, although The Crucible is a realistic play, the director decided to take it out of realism. "We are doing it on the steps of City Hall. Eugene Lee has come up with a fantastic scaled-down replica of the steps of Providence City Hall. So we're doing it as though we are a guerrilla street theater."
But we are living 300 years after the time of the play. Did the actors have difficulty getting into the 17th-century state of mind that resulted in 19 hanging victims?