Gordon Edelstein’s brilliant concept for Hartford Stage’s present production of The Crucible brings him into the circle of exceptional directors who shed new light on classic works. According to the dictionary, one of the definitions of a crucible is a severe test, as of patience or belief. Arthur Miller’s 1953 play, The Crucible, heartbreakingly dramatizes the Salem, Massachusetts Witchcraft trails of 1692-93, presenting an incredible life and death historical event which tested the mettle of ordinary women, men and children accused of consorting with the devil. It first became an allegory for McCarthyism. Now, to Edelstein’s credit, it seems to relate to present day political skullduggery, particularly in the second act, where the motto over the door of the court reads: “Either You Are With Us - or You Are Terrorists.”
The large 27 member cast, costumed in simple country clothes that move well by Ilona Somogyi, is superb. It consists of actors whom we were not familiar with like Michael Laurence, who brings grainy authenticity to the role of John Proctor, to those actors whom we have admired and missed like Sam Tsoutsouvas; as the oppressive Deputy Governor Danforth, he is an important figure in the second act.
The opening scene is startling. High above Eugene Lee’s coldly spare set lit by a frame of fluorescent tubes by Michael Chybowski, is a forest of greenery and flowers. There, running wild, dancing, and screaming hysterically are young girls, some played by Hartt School, University of Hartford students. Leading them is Tituba (C. Zakiah Barksdale), a slave woman from Barbados, who claims she can make magic happen. Also in the group are Abigail Williams, played with crystal clarity by Rachel Mewbron, who had had an affair with her boss, John Proctor, and would like to see his wife, Elizabeth, the elegant Kate Forbes, dead; and Lili Jacobs’ Betty Parris, who has fallen into a coma. Betty’s uncle, Reverend Samuel Parris, acted by Tom Beckett, who won top Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk awards for Travels with My Aunt, is beside himself and calls in a witchcraft expert, Reverend Hale, well portrayed by David Barlow.
Fear spreads through the whole town; innocent women and men are dragged from their homes into courts ruled by supercilious judges, condemned to die by lying witnesses if they don’t recant their sins, and thrown into jails and hung. The Proctors, farmers and the parents of three young sons, are drawn into this morass by Mary Warren. Their ultimate struggle is the crucible here, the test. In order to save his life, John Proctor must lie, must sign his name to a false document. An innocent god-fearing Rebecca Nurse, a valiant Annette Hunt whose credits are amazing, is condemned as well.
The end is a lesson to be learned over and over again. The Crucible reminds us that history can and does repeat itself if we let it. Performances have been extended. It will run through October 6 at Hartford Stage. Box Office 860-527-5151.