It's often easy for us, living in the second decade of the 21st century, to look back on the Salem witch trials with benign condescension. How ignorant and gullible those people were back then. I mean ... witches?!
But before we sprain our rotator cuff patting ourselves on the back, we should recognize that even now we have people, aspiring to be leaders, who are launching their own "witch hunts." With presidential candidates accusing illegal immigrants of being rapists, comparing Obamacare and Planned Parenthood to slavery, and equating expanded marriage rights with the tyranny of the Nazis, we have no shortage of our own foaming-at-the-mouth wackos.
The Crucible is playwright Arthur Miller's allegory of the McCarthy era in the 1950s when citizens were accused of being communists and then blacklisted by a Congressional committee led by Senator Joe McCarthy. Like McCarthy, many of the leaders of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 build hysteria to a fever pitch around the mysterious "illnesses" of local teen girls.
The girls initially just wanted to avoid punishment for some naughty dancing in the woods, inspired by the Parris family slave Tituba (Socorro Santiago). The mean-girls' leader Abigail quickly recognizes the power they have, and soon they form a posse that is accusing everyone in sight of being a witch, and many of the accused are hanged because they won't confess. Plus, Abby has had a sexual encounter with one local man, John Proctor, and she accuses John's wife Elizabeth of witchery, supposedly clearing the deck for Abigail to move in.
The story in The Crucible is riveting all by itself. But this production by the Cleveland Play House is literally monumental in its scope. You are immersed in an entirely different world thanks to Scott Bradley's jaw-dropping, fire-pit scenic design — augmented by Mary Louise Geiger's evocative lighting design and sound designer Jane Shaw's tingling aural atmosphere. Presented in the round, a square and weathered plank platform is elevated several feet above the stage (it will subsequently sink, along with the hopes of many Salem citizens).
Once you've absorbed that arresting tableau, the play begins with a Halloween-spooky overture, of sorts, as young girls sing, scream and laugh, with one or two girls seen dancing in the rafters high above. And then attention is focused on the floating bedroom where Betty, daughter of the Rev. Parris, is comatose in bed due to some unknown ailment.
The reverend does not want to think the cause is otherworldly, but rumors abound in town about Betty taking flight (literally) under some spell. From there, we see how Abigail and other of Betty's peers begin to manipulate the adults, until it all spins wildly out of control.
The large cast, under the precisely defined direction of Laura Kepley, matches Bradley's set — both in terms of originality and execution. Although everyone on stage begins the first act a notch or two over-agitated, trying to register their panic and fear a bit too energetically, their agitation soon mirrors the weird occurrences appropriately. As Rev. Parris, Donald Carrier evolves from a concerned but pompous parent into a blind finger-pointer with dreams of power. He is joined by Fabio Polanco as Thomas Putnam, a rich and craven Salemite who wants to scoop up the land owned by the accused witches.
As Abigail, Katie O. Solomon is the girl we all feared in school, able to put on an angelic face when necessary, but spitting venom if you crossed her. And when she and the other teens show up near the end in costume designer Lex Liang's matching black-gloved outfits, they look like the girl group from Hell. In the role of Mary Warren, the one girl who tries to stand up to Abigail and tell the truth about the pubescent charade, Mahira Kakkar is achingly vulnerable. There is little enough humor in this intense spectacle, but many of the laughs that do come are thanks to Ray Shell, who plays the straight-talking, no-nonsense Giles Corey, a pal of John Proctor.
However, the most resonant roles in the show are Proctor, played with towering nobility and down-to-earth honesty by Esau Pritchett, steadfast Rachel Leslie as his wife, and Cleveland icon Dorothy Silver as the ever-sensible Rebecca Nurse. In the final scene, when Proctor decides whether to sign a totally bogus confession to being a deputy of the devil, in order to save his life, Pritchett and Silver create a shattering moment of magic and truth.
This is a sizzling production befitting the theater's 100th season. But is it all still relevant, with regard to our political climate? Well, to slightly paraphrase Bertolt Brecht's concluding line from his play Artuo Ui, regarding those who use deceit for their own purposes: "For though the world rose up and stopped the bastards, the bitch that bore them is in heat again."