Arthur Miller 1953 “The Crucible” was a response to Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s obsessive accusations of thousands of Americans as communists. Although set in Salem, Massachusetts, at the time of the 1692 witch trials, the contemporary references were obvious.
Recent productions have stripped away the historical setting, emphasizing universal parallels to political fear mongering. PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production has its own take on timelessness in an intensely gripping staging, one of its best in several seasons.
The production is in the round, the wooden rectangular acting space becoming its own crucible, with hostile characters swirling among themselves in claustrophobic proximity. Designer Narelle Sissons uses the theater’s technical resources impressively, including one spectacular scene change and a startling outburst of hysteria (neither to be revealed here). Josh Epstein’s shadowy, often chilling lighting and Eric Alexander Collins’ ominous ambient soundscape add to the real-world horrors masked as supernatural ones.
Another distinctive aspect is Grier Coleman’s costuming. Instead of Puritan garb, the characters’ clothing initially signals vaguely earlier times. As the play progresses, characters sport more and more recent styles, ending with contemporary business suits in the courtroom scene.
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Director Desdemona Chiang ratchets up the tension right away in this riveting journey through all-too-familiar circumstances where unsubstantiated assertions become accepted fact, with devastating results.
Nearly two-dozen actors supply fresh interpretations. Ariel Shafir makes reluctant hero John Proctor casually down to earth, his flaws outweighed by his unwillingness to save his life with a lie. Sarita Ocón’s Elizabeth Proctor is coolly independent, her love for her husband tamped down by his unfaithfulness but brought out when he defies the reigning powers.
Jim Moscater’s Reverend Parris is frighteningly zealous, Christine Mirzayan’s servant girl Mary Warren elicits sympathy when trying to do the right thing and Shanelle Nicole Leonard’s conjurer Tituba demonstrates how innocent actions can be twisted into premeditated evil.
Company veterans give striking characterizations, including Jeffrey Blair Cornell’s quietly menacing Deputy Governor Danforth, Ray Dooley’s feisty farmer Giles Corey and Kathryn Hunter-Williams’ Rebecca Nurse, admirably principled to the end. Other fine regulars include Schuyler Scott Mastain’s clueless Reverend Hale, Allison Altman’s revengeful Abigail, and Benjamin Curns’ land-grabbing Thomas Putnam.
The script is repetitive and overly verbose in places but the warning flags it raises need constant waving, especially in today’s contentious political landscape.
What: “The Crucible”
Where: Paul Green Theatre, UNC Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 25-29, Nov. 1-4, Nov. 6; 2 p.m. Oct. 29-30, Nov. 6
Tickets: $15-$72 (Oct. 25 all seats $15)
Info: 919-962-7529 or playmakersrep.org