The New Deal Creative Arts, a non-profit performing arts group based in Hyde Park, offers a gripping rendition of Arthur Miller’s 1953 drama, The Crucible. The play opens this Friday, November 8, and runs for two weekends.
Written by Wendy Urban-Mead
In the spring of 1692 in present-day Danvers, Massachusetts, began a series of events that led to the execution of 20 people. Scores more were accused and jailed. The fear of witchcraft was hanging in the air. Had the disreputable Sarah Goode, or the upright church-member Goodwife (“Goody”) Nurse signed the Devil’s Book? Seventeen-year-old Abigail Williams, formerly in service at John and Elizabeth Proctor’s homestead, had been hired by no one since being dismissed from their employ eight months earlier. Why? Why was Abigail leading the cluster of girls making the accusations? Why was Abigail’s aunt, Ann Putnam, afflicted with multiple births of babies who died within days? Did the Putnam family’s enslaved servant, Tituba, with her knowledge of the occult, have a role in the misfortunes? What stew of generational, class, and gendered rivalry was feeding this storm?
New England’s English settlers were in an Atlantic world that belied its seeming isolation and ostensibly single-minded focus on the Puritan religion. War between England and France, lethal attacks by Native Americans, a smallpox epidemic, and the hardscrabble challenge of making the rocky Massachusetts soil yield a prosperous living informed the stark social climate. Their world intersected with economic, social, cultural, and religious forces from the Caribbean, the African slave trade, and the New-World colonial rivalries among the British, French, and Spanish powers.
Fast-forward three centuries. Playwright Arthur Miller found himself aghast at the unfolding of the Red Scare in the early 1950s. The fear of communism was high; people accused of being closet Communists lost their careers, social networks, and friends. The heavy hand of Cold War paranoia affected every facet of life in the US at that time. Keen to find a way to capture this dynamic in a stage play that might goad its audiences to wake up and see the damage being done to people’s lives and the soundness of the American republic, Miller ultimately decided to triangulate, by looking at the events in Salem. Miller pored over the records of the court trials, and ultimately settled on the story surrounding John Proctor as the centerpiece of the drama.
The Crucible is one of the most-often produced plays in North America, and indeed around the world. Why go to this one here in Hyde Park, this month? My answer is, because this production will take you by the throat and not release you until the heart-rending final scene. Because there is an impressive collection of talented actors bringing their best to tell this story from 17th Century Salem, Massachusetts. The members of the cast have moved deep into that moment defined by intrigue, witchcraft, sexual tension, vengeance, human frailty, peak courage, and political paranoia. Because the production’s physical setting takes you back to the spatial sense of the era. The performance space is at Pleasant Plains Presbyterian Church, at the corner of Fiddler’s Bridge and Hollow Roads. The church is tucked at the edge of a great wall of rock, at a sharp bend in the narrow road, and sits under a canopy of tall, dark trees. It is as if time has rolled back several centuries. The audience sits inside the church’s plain white walls, illuminated with natural light through plain glass windows, under the high peaked roof, in the simple dark-wood pews. The building’s stark simplicity portends the stern lessons that unfold over the course of the play. Am I at the Salem courthouse after all? Behold, I see the demure white head coverings on the women, their wide white collars and sober, dark dresses, the leathern tunics of the farming men and lacy jabots pouring out of the black great-coats of the court officials and clergy.
In short, there is pitch-perfect costuming by Tory Elvin and the decision by producer Teresa Gasparini to set the play at this church was a brilliant move. The director, Thom Webb, is an actor’s director. Himself an accomplished stage performer, Webb brings both his respect for the actor’s creative process and his sharp historical knowledge to bear in this, his newest work as an emerging director of merit. The scenes unfold briskly and audiences are taken deep into the story, ably held by the strength of the acting.
Joe Eriole concedes that playing John Proctor is a dream come true. Proctor’s iconic line, “[b]ecause it is my name, because I cannot have another in my life,” with which he urges court officials to take his soul, but not his name, is for Eriole the heart of his character.
Steavie Hergenrader Reed plays Abigail Williams, the young girl who saw in her employer Proctor’s sexual advances a promise – that she would replace his wife Elizabeth. Instead, Proctor repents of his lust, and agrees when Elizabeth insists that Abigail be turned out. Reed reflects: “for a young girl who feels so utterly misunderstood and wronged, Abigail has the exhausting and exhilarating journey in The Crucible of concealing, adjusting, and attempting to control, which has been the most challenging and enjoyable part of this process.”
Elizabeth Proctor’s composed, if not chilly, demeanor conceals someone who never believed she could win someone’s love. She ultimately concedes that “suspicion kissed you when I did; I never knew how I should say my love.” For actor Alexandra Petrova-Emisti, whose rendering of Elizabeth is compelling – both restrained and powerful – this is the critical moment when Elizabeth’s reserve slips to show her vulnerability; till then she had looked outside herself to find the source of blame for all that went wrong.
These are the insights of just three of the actors in what is a large, lively cast. Andy Crispell’s Hathorne, Austin Carrothers’ Reverend Hale, Denis Sylvestri’s Parris, and Michael Froehnhofer’s Governor Danforth are notable for their vivid, distinct renderings of the individuals making up the gang of powerful men at the top of Salem’s social-political scene. Hale’s character arc, ending in a compelling speech about the sanctity of life, is haunting. In the midst of the tragic chaos of the hangings, an easily forgettable line became the one that pierced my heart on the lips of Maria Hasenpflug’s Rebecca Nurse, who remarks on her way to the gallows: “I have not had my breakfast.”
In a 1996 article in which playwright Miller reflected on why he wrote The Crucible, he observed that “below its concerns with justice the play evokes a lethal brew of illicit sexuality, fear of the supernatural, and political manipulation, a combination not unfamiliar these days.”* He might as well have written that in 2019.
New Deal Creative Arts Center’s production of The Crucible plays in a setting that strongly evokes the stark feel of the Puritan meeting house central to the telling of this story. It is a drama which – rather soberingly – continues to resonate, goad, and haunt. Performed by a committed and talented group of seasoned local actors, under able direction, this must-see offering of The Crucible runs November 8, 9, 15 & 16 at 7:30 PM and November 10 at 2 PM, at the Pleasant Plains Presbyterian Church, 2 Fiddler’s Bridge Road, Staatsburg. Tickets are $20 in advance (newdeal-thecrucible.eventbrite.com) or $25 at the door. Student tickets are also offered at the door for $10.
*(Arthur Miller, “Why I Wrote The Crucible: an artist’s answer to politics,” The New Yorker, October 13, 1996. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1996/10/21/why-i-wrote-the-crucible )