Devil's Playground

Every new generation can glean fresh meaning from Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Now onstage at Addison's WaterTower Theatre in a stark but precisely rendered production directed by Terry Martin, the play never seems out of date. Such is its legacy as one of the finest tragedies of the 20th century. And such is the likelihood that no matter the moment in modern American history, some egregious abuse of power is under way and some new ideological war threatens to tip a vulnerable segment of the American populace toward mass hysteria.

The Crucible explores just such a phenomenon: the 1692 Salem witch trials. Motivated by mischief, jealousy or, as one theory has it, hallucinations brought on from eating moldy bread, girls in the remote Massachusetts village succumbed to fits and fainting spells and began accusing their elders of trafficking with the devil. Puritan government officials believed them. Out of fear, neighbor informed on neighbor, and some 400 men and women were imprisoned on rumors of satanic activity. Torture was used to extract confessions. Nineteen were hanged. The ugly yearlong episode came to an end only when the wife of the colony's governor was named a witch. After that, higher-ups suddenly snapped to their senses. The girls were deemed mentally incompetent, and hundreds of their victims were released from jail.

The play stands as an epic metaphor for political corruption. Miller meant it as a parable mirroring the communist "witch hunts" of the 1950s, and was driven to write it, he explained in an essay published in 2000, by events directly surrounding the release of the movie version of Death of a Salesman. Columbia Pictures had fallen under the beady gaze of Senator Joe McCarthy, just revving up his red-baiting campaign in the early 1950s. Salesman, which had won Miller the 1949 Pulitzer, had drawn fire as pinko propaganda for its anti-business (and therefore anti-American) depiction of a lowly salesman, Willy Loman, driven to suicide by heartless bosses who cast him out of the job he's poured his life into.

The American Legion threatened to picket movie theaters showing Salesman. Columbia leaned on Miller to sign an anti-communist loyalty oath, which the playwright wouldn't do. To avoid being labeled commie sympathizers, the studio produced its own piece of pro-American rah-rah--a tacky short called The Life of a Salesman extolling the joys of a sales career and painting Loman as a mental case--and tacked it onto every print of the Miller film. "Never in show business history has a studio spent so much good money to prove that its feature film was pointless," Miller later wrote.

Subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Miller refused to name names. He was declared in contempt and threatened with prison. All would have been forgiven if he had paraded his new wife, Marilyn Monroe, before the panel as requested. He declined, was found guilty of the contempt charge and paid a fine.

After that ordeal, Miller said he felt he had slipped into a surreal realm of "free-floating apprehension." Intrigued by a book about the Salem witch trials, he immersed himself in actual trial transcripts and started writing The Crucible (using names taken from the Salem cases) as an attack on those who would abuse their power as a means to quell dissent.

Seeing The Crucible now is to realize how relevant Miller's message remains. Substitute "terrorism" for "witchcraft" and feel the sting of recognition in lines like the one uttered by Deputy-Governor Danforth in the play's tense third-act trial scene: "A person is either with this court or he is against it." They speak in the play of secret plots and dangerous beliefs in other gods. Informers are rewarded. Strict adherence to Christian principles is held up as proof of patriotism. "There is fear in the country because there is a moving plot to topple Christ in the country," declares Danforth. Sound familiar?

Without communism as bogeyman to stoke paranoia, now it is terrorism, evolution, gay marriage--any wedge issue that represents departure from right-wing orthodoxy can substitute for The Crucible's witchcraft. Not too long ago it was AIDS, and before that, women's rights. And we're not all that far removed from believing that Beelzebub moves among us. Remember the McMartin child abuse case of the 1980s? Children prompted and goaded by law enforcement accused daycare workers of bizarre satanic cult activity and sexual abuse. Similar incidents were reported coast to coast in what appeared to be a sudden epidemic of baby-killing and molestation by mysterious covens of devil worshipers. But it wasn't true. Cases later were dismissed for lack of evidence, and convictions were overturned when it was shown that the shocking details of sexual perversion and cult activity were false memories planted by prosecutors and investigators. Those events made for much smaller headlines, of course.

We may think we are smarter and more sophisticated than our 17th-century forebears, but we are still terribly susceptible to what Miller called "the poetry of suggestion." We continue to be swift to believe in absurdities presented as imminent threats to our very souls. The persuaders now, however, aren't crazy little girls fueled by rotten bread but respected religious figures and elected officials abetted by a complicit media hungry for new ways to keep the faithful tuned in and scared witless. How ravenously CNN's prosecutor-by-proxy Nancy Grace would have embraced Salem's spooky children and publicly devoured their accused conjurers.

The Crucible serves as timeless cautionary tale, but its beauty also lies in how the honor of its fatally flawed hero, John Proctor, is revealed through his resistance to injustice. A married farmer, Proctor (played at WaterTower by the astonishingly good Joe Nemmers) stands trial on charges of dealings with the devil. A young maid, Abigail Williams (Jenny Ledel), is in love with him and believes naming his wife, Elizabeth (Shelley Tharp-Payton), a witch will get the woman out of the way. The townsfolk regard Elizabeth as pious and relentlessly truthful, so when she lies to the court about her husband's adultery with Abigail, she's doomed to the gallows. John is told he and his wife will be spared if he confirms Elizabeth's unholy alliances. He's tempted to lie, but emboldened by his wife's courage, he chooses honorable death instead.

The most touching and beautifully acted scenes in The Crucible (the word means "terrible trial") unfold between John and Elizabeth, in their farmhouse in act two and in the barn that serves as a prison in the final act (Clare Floyd Devries' scenic design sets the action inside a cavernous rough-hewn box). Nemmers and Tharp-Payton bring a sharp, raw tension to their characters' relationship. See how her Elizabeth winces when John criticizes her rabbit stew. That makes their bittersweet reunion at the end even more wrenching.

WaterTower's artistic director Terry Martin adds to the epic scope of this staging by casting some of Dallas theater's strongest professional actors. R Bruce Elliott makes Danforth a flesh and blood tyrant, determined to prove the devil's deeds against all logic. He struts through the trial scene puffed up with his own piety (and wearing Gucci loafers, which is a little confusing amid the period costumes). Paul Taylor and Chamblee Ferguson as Salem's competing preachers, Parris and Hale, are a prized pair of blustery Bible-thumpers, though Taylor starts the play at perhaps too high a pitch energy-wise to leave him anyplace to build to.

The finest performance comes from the actor in the noblest role. Steve M. Powell as the crusty Giles Corey emerges as the ultimate truth-teller in the piece, announcing at the height of the frenzy that the girls are frauds and their accusations ridiculous. For that, he's executed in a particularly grisly manner (unseen by the audience but recounted by a witness). Powell, with a voice like Hal Holbrook, cautiously underplays and therefore is riveting.

And surrounded by veterans like these, young Ledel as the scheming Abigail, and Maxey Whitehead as her friend Mary Warren, the one who breaks ranks with the other girls only to be drawn back into their madness, hold their own admirably. Both actresses are college grads who look a decade younger. What a gift it must be to experience so great a play so early in one's acting career.

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