‘The Crucible’ parallels witch hunts from two eras
Maverick Theater mounts an all-new staging of Arthur Miller’s historical drama, an instant modern classic when it opened in 1953.
By Eric Marchese
The phrase “witch hunt” is tossed around in public, often by those who believe they’re being persecuted. But it’s a term not to be taken lightly: Arguably the most famous witch hunt in history unfolded in the town of Salem, Mass., in 1692 and ’93, and it caused those accused to be summarily executed by hanging.
That community was gripped in terror. Hysteria spread like wildfire, generating paranoia. That, in turn, caused some of the town’s citizens to voice false accusations to divert attention from themselves and avoid being branded a witch.
When, in the early 1950s, playwright Arthur Miller saw the U.S. government launch a campaign of persecution against anyone suspected of being a Communist or associating with them, he fought back by writing a play about Salem that was meant to mirror what he saw occurring all around him.
That play, “The Crucible,” almost instantly became a modern classic when it opened in 1953. It’s gotten numerous New York productions from its world premiere through two 21st-century Broadway revivals (2002 and 2016), has been filmed for movie theaters and television and was the source of an opera.
For nearly 70 years, theatergoers everywhere have been gripped by this play, so if you’re ready yet again for the compelling theater experience that is “The Crucible,” head over to Maverick Theater.
Likewise, if you’ve only ever seen this classic on screen, now’s your chance to see it live.
Brian Newell, the production’s producer and director, calls the play “a great piece of American playwriting” that’s studied in high schools across the country.
He cites multiple reasons for his desire to create a new production: Newell said the show is “actor-driven” and that “some of my strongest actors at Maverick kept talking about ‘The Crucible’ and wanting to be in a production of it.”
“That show absolutely relies on top talent. Getting that kind of feedback, I’d be stupid not to do it.”
Newell, who founded Maverick in 2002, said his early 2020 auditions “really drew out some of the best talent in Orange County” and confirmed his sense that actors are indeed attracted to the drama.
Cast early last year were Nathan Baesel as John Proctor, Kalinda Gray as Elizabeth Proctor, Mark Coyan as Hale, Spencer Douglas as Danforth, Samantha Green as Abigail, and Margaret Dean as Mary Warren.
When the pandemic and lockdown prevented the show’s opening, Newell rehearsed his cast weekly via Zoom. When that strategy “started to get pretty dry,” they began using the backyard of Maverick company member Lauren Shoemaker’s home for masked and distanced rehearsals from July through September.
In the fall, Newell began concocting various scenarios through which he could produce the show while adhering to pandemic guidelines. Logistics, through, were daunting, so Newell put “The Crucible” on the shelf “until I knew we could bring it back in the way we intended – and that’s what we did.”
In February, his “educated guess” as to when theaters would be allowed to reopen led him to choose June 25th as the show’s opening night – the second of Maverick’s first two indoor show in more than a year.
With June 15th announced as the date when California would reopen, Newell said that his sense of when he could resume more-or-less normal indoor productions “just aligned with the calendar.”
An instant modern classic
Upon its premiere, “The Crucible” was regarded as a major achievement in American drama, instantly becoming a focal work in the standard repertory of theater companies nationwide.
Part dramatization, partly a fictionalized account of what took place in the Massachusetts Bay Colony late in the 17th century, the drama binds metaphor with allegory in a cautionary tale not just for Miller’s own time, but for any period where a specific subset of American society becomes subject to being singled out and hounded.
Originally called “Those Familiar Spirits,” the play’s ultimate title better encapsulates its themes and content: a “crucible” is a container in which metals or other elements are subjected to extremely, often unenduringly high, temperatures. Its symbolic meaning refers to any condition that proves to be the most severe test or trial imaginable.
Among Miller’s unforgettable characters are John Proctor and Rebecca Nurse, whose moral standards prevail even in the face of death. Both are willing to withstand the blistering condemnation of those around them, refusing to sacrifice their integrity and their principles or, even worse in their eyes, to yield false confessions.
The character of Giles Corey is based on the real Giles Corey who, during the Salem witch trials, was pressed to death (crushed) after having been found guilty – a horrifying fate depicted in Miller’s play.
Miller’s point is that whatever the group being persecuted – whether young women suspected of witchcraft, activists steeped in the ways of Marx, or artists, intellectuals and free-thinkers of any era – those in that group aren’t the only ones who suffer. Taking a hit are society, the principals of our nation’s Founding Fathers, and our way of life.
The play, Newell said, “is timely with its statement of how misinformation – so-called fake news – can cause a society to take such extreme measures to prove they are right, even if it takes the lives of those that question that information.”
The Maverick production’s sets were designed by Joe Hufferd, who brought in students from his Troy High School drama classes to help him build them. Celestina Hudson designed and created the costumes. The lighting and sound design are Newell’s, and as with all of his “Staged Cinema” productions, Newell is using musical underscoring to heighten the show’s emotional impact.
Maverick’s staging, Newell notes, marks “a return to live theater with one of the greatest plays written in the 20th century with a cast of stellar performers, the perfect cure for not having seen theater for 15 months.”
So come by Maverick Theater and you’ll witness a tale audiences have found compelling for 68 years.
Eric Marchese has written about numerous subjects over more than 35 years as a freelance and staff journalist for various publications, but is best known as a critic, feature writer and news reporter covering theater in Orange County and throughout Southern California.
Maverick Theater, 110 E. Walnut Street, Fullerton
June 25-August 1. Fri. 7:30, Sat. 7 p.m., Sun. 5 p.m.
$25 ($10 students)