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The Crucible’ brings witchcraft to the stage

Sarah Vabulas | Friday, November 7, 2003

Even though a week has passed since Halloween, tales of witchcraft are still filling the halls of Little Theater at Saint Mary’s College this weekend where Saint Mary’s students and professors, along with professional actors are staging their production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” The play is set during the Salem witch trials of 1692, where hundreds of women were accused and 20 eventually were hanged after being found guilty of practicing witchcraft.

At the beginning of the play, a minister in Salem, Rev. Samuel Parris (Daniel R. Lehner) stumbles upon his daughter and her friends dancing in the woods at night while his slave, Tituba (Dana Shelton), recites incantations over a cauldron. The girls are frightened off, and in the calamity, Parris’s daughter, Betty (Victoria Abram-Copenhaver) faints, and will not wake up. Once word spreads around the town of these mysterious acts, rumors of witchcraft begin to surface.

In order to calm these fears, Parris calls in witchcraft expert Rev. John Hale (Terry Farren) to prove that the devil does not inhabit his daughter. Hale convinces Tituba to confess having interacted with Satan, and calls upon her to name the others involved with these demonic practices. Parris’s niece, Abigail Williams (Liesl Yost), who was involved with the incident and originally tries to cover it up, also saves her own life by confessing and “naming names.”

While many in the town are quick to point the finger and have the girls hanged, several skeptics exist among them. One of these men, a farmer named John Proctor (Greg Melton), refuses to be involved in the controversy until he discovers that his servant Mary Warren (Maria Corso) was present at the alleged incident, and that his wife, Elizabeth (Marianne Rutz) is one of the accused.

Proctor realizes that the only reason his devout wife is accused is because Abigail Williams was her accuser. Abigail used to be the Proctor family’s servant, but Elizabeth dismissed her after a love affair between Abigail and Proctor was uncovered. Proctor and Elizabeth reconciled to a degree, but Abigail confesses her undying love to Proctor and celebrates the fact that after Elizabeth is hanged, the two of them will be together. This revelation disgusts Proctor, who has already repented for his lechery, and he goes on a quest to save his wife and uncover Abigail as a fraud, even if it means revealing his sins in public.

“The Crucible” is one of the most well known plays of the 20th century. Performed on countless high school, college and professional stages across the world, it sometimes becomes difficult to stage it in a new and unique way. In the Saint Mary’s production, director Mark Abram-Copenhaver has added his own unique touch in the set design of the play.

Aside from the usual horizontal stage, the stage has an extension attached on the left side, covering a section of seats, which adds much more room for movement and action for the actors.

Because of this unique setup, the actors often have their backs turned to one part of the audience or another, though Little Theatre allows for all of the voices to be heard clearly.

Painstaking effort was put into the production of the set, which incorporates an inside setting (for Proctor’s house, Parris’s house, and the court) and an outside setting (for the nighttime sequences). The indoor setting reflects 17th -century colonial Massachusetts, with aged walls and wood scaffolds. The stage addition also allows for another entrance along stage right. The outdoor setting, taking up most of stage left, has as its centerpiece a giant tree, reaching from the ground to the top of the theater, surrounded by various rocks and logs, providing seating for a couple scenes.

Stage lighting also provides a unique addition to the setting of “The Crucible.” Because there are both daytime and nighttime scenes, the backdrop is lit accordingly with blue or purple shades. During the climax, when the accused are to be hanged at sunrise, the backdrop lighting is accented by white lights along the floor, which slowly brighten as the scene progresses. In the outdoor scenes, lights strategically placed lights filter through the tree and cast shadows that mimic real moonlight.

The costumes are the most impressive element of the design of “The Crucible.” The characters have beautiful costumes that reflect the dress of the colonial period, without falling into the stereotypical and often silly Thanksgiving pilgrim. Many productions also choose to dress the characters very much alike, but the Saint Mary’s production gives each character their own style.

Proctor exemplifies the role of a farmer in a shirt and cloak that is a mix between the characters of Robin Hood and the ranger, Strider. Hale has a beautiful black suit that recalls many traditional pilgrim images, with the hat to match, but he fits very well into it, and it does not stand out among the other characters. The dress of the women is also very reserved, with whites and tans dominating the blouses, along with lightly colored aprons and bonnets.

The final design element that adds a unique perspective to this staging of the play is sound. The scenes begin and end with drums that mimic heartbeats, which grow and intensify as the plot thickens. Outdoor scenes are full of the sounds of crickets and owls, along with a whistling wind that fills the theater before the play starts.

All of these elements, however, are crowned with the exceptional performances of the actors involved. Melton, in the role of Proctor, is the dominant and commanding presence in every scene with which he is involved. Melton is incredibly multifaceted as an actor. The audience sees him as a scolding cynic at the onset of the play and a forceful patriarch in the household. His character undergoes the greatest transformation in the play, turning from a headstrong farmer into an introspective, philosophically tormented man searching for his redemption and purpose in the world. The anger Melton displays when Proctor’s wife is taken from him is enough to create chills. His emotional outcries reflect the passionate performances of Sean Bean. His inner torment to save his own life or his soul is deeply invocative of the character of Sir Thomas Moore in “A Man for All Seasons.” His performance demands dominance because he is one of the only characters not blinded by lies or stifled by the religious culture of the period.

Another character that changes dramatically in the play is that of Hale. Farren literally puts on two performances in the role. In the first part, Hale is still the devout minister who knows witchcraft when he sees it. Because of this knowledge, he is very good at convincing the girls to confess. Many of the ministers of the period were known for having passionate sermons predicting fire, brimstone, and eternal suffering when God inflicts his vengeful wrath on the wicked. Farren chooses to connect that character with a contemporary audience by using televangelists as his inspiration. A mix between Ned Flanders and those Sunday morning preachers, Farren successfully draws a comparison that helps the audience to understand the religious atmosphere of the time. The second part of the play shows a man who realizes the goodness in Proctor as well as the mistakes he has made in preaching condemnation of evil deeds over positive reinforcement as a catalyst for change. All of the hangings have filled his soul with guilt and he wants to purge that guilt through saving the lives of the condemned. He turns into a passionate, desperate man who wants Proctor and the others to confess, if only to save their lives. He provides a sharp contrast with the “holier than thou” figurehead of the first part of the play and now places himself on the level of the prisoners.

Yost perfectly incorporates the two-sided nature of Abigail in her performance. When she is alone with the girls, she is a cocky, wicked leader of the incident, who is out to save her own skin. In front of authority, she plays the innocent girl, who is repentant for her transgressions. When Abbey is with John Proctor, she is a seductress who will stop at nothing to get her man. Yost clearly defines and beautifully balances these personas.

Rutz, in the role of Proctor’s wife Elizabeth, uses traditional views of colonial women as her motivation. She is quiet, firm, and devout with her faith. She is very reserved around her husband, as anyone would be around an adulterous spouse. One of their early scenes alone at the dinner table is reminiscent of the distant relationship of Charles and Emily at the end of the dinner table scene in “Citizen Kane.” Her role slowly transforms, and Rutz becomes a wife desperate to save her husband, but resolved to the fact that confessing would be worse than dying.

Another commanding male performance is turned in by Louis MacKenzie, who plays Deputy Governor Danforth. He is responsible for trying and convicting the accused girls. He has a stern demeanor, yet not overly powerful, and is fair without being merciful, as the role demands. He is very controlling in the courtroom, as any judge would be, and is very contemplative, yet shows no emotion. MacKenzie plays the role with a controlling presence but also as a character that possesses a lot of self-control. His role as the Deputy Governor contrasts very well with that of Vini DeDario, who plays Judge Hathorne. DeDario plays the role with a brash outspokenness that highlights the controlled demeanor of MacKenzie as Danforth.

Perhaps the most vocally demanding role is that of Mary Warren, played by Maria Corso, the servant to the Proctor family who is caught in the middle of the conflict between Abigail and Proctor. She spends some of the first part, and much of the second whimpering, crying, or wailing- three things not easily done for long periods of time in the acting world. She is very convincing though, in her suffering, and adds depth to what could simply be played as a superficial character that screams all the time.

Other strong supporting roles include Proctor’s friend Giles Corey, an honest, elderly man played by Terry Dawson. Linda Janke plays the role of Ann Putnam along with William Svelmoe as her husband, Thomas. Janke and Svelmoe add much to the opening scene of the play, providing support for the rumors of witchcraft among the girls.

Lehner, as the somewhat jaded preacher Parris, who is also Abigail’s uncle, plays his role in a manner unique from the rest of the cast. He tries to be firm, yet somehow struggles to convince the audience of his role in the play.

“The Crucible” is a unique theater experience highlighted even more by powerful performances. In the end, the story is less about a historical perspective of the events of 1692, and more about the place of authority in religion, the means by which to gain redemption and salvation and the search to find goodness in a world of evil and lies.

Arthur Miller wrote the play during the Red Scare of communism to mock what was very similar to the Salem Witch Hunts of early America. His work proves to show both the silliness and frustration behind accusing people for belonging to groups without proper evidence along with the skewed roles that authority, particularly the courts, have in society.

“The Crucible” plays at the Moreau Center for the Performing Arts at Saint Mary’s College Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $8.50 for general admission, $7.50 for senior citizens, $6.50 for faculty and staff and $5.50 for students. Tickets can be purchased from the Saint Mary’s Box Office at (574) 284-4626.

Contact Jonathan Retartha at jretarth@nd.edu and Sarah Vabulas at vabu4547@saintmarys.edu