Theatre review: The Crucible by Arthur Miller

There was a full house at the Oliver Theatre to watch The Crucible (1953) a play by Arthur Miller. The Crucible is set in Salem Massachusetts in 1692 and based on the witch hunt and trials that took place in Salem’s puritan community, a theocracy governed by a few men. The play was written in the McCarthy era in the US when people, including Miller were subject to coercive methods of interrogation in the hunt to expose communists in the Cold War era.

A screen of water fell as the audience took their seats creating a subtly spectacular visual effect but aside from a few other technical effects director Lyndsey Turner's adaptation stays close to the original.

The onstage rain stopped abruptly to reveal the set furnished only with a metal frame bed and a young girl, Betty Parris, lying in a coma  with the Reverend Parris, her father, pacing up and down in the background. Parris is joined on stage by Tituba the maid from Barbados and Abigail Williams (Erin Doherty) his niece, aged seventeen, dressed in a pink coloured pinafore and wearing her hair in pigtails tied back.

Parris is informed by the doctor Betty’s illness could be due to unnatural causes. He is concerned after discovering Abigail and Betty ‘dancing like heathens in the forest’ the night before and alleged sightings of them flying over buildings leading to rumours of witchcraft in the community.

As such, the story is also about power and gossip. We see townsfolk, including Rebecca Nurse, landowners 83 year old Giles Corey, Thomas and Ann Putnam and farmer John Proctor (Brendan Cowell) gather at Parris’s house inquisitive about Betty’s condition. And there is talk of resentments inside the community in terms of social status, ownership of land and property.

A key figure is Reverend Hale from Beverly an expert witch hunter. Hale arrives in Salem at Parris's request bringing his heavy books on the subject ‘weighted with authority’.

Following his investigations Abigail, Betty and Tituba accuse several members of the community of witchcraft (to divert attention from themselves) and the eminent men in Salem respond to the prevailing hysteria to serve their own ends: to leverage their financial interests and also from hubris and a misguided belief they are cleansing the town of evil. They ignore the substantial counter evidence from Giles Corey and Procter.

Scene 2 is set in the home of the Proctors in their sparsely furnished kitchen, a stove on the left, a long table stretching across the stage. Light in used to great effect here and a gaslamp on the table casts a subdued, calm atmosphere over the scene.

Proctor returns home from work and discusses with his wife Elizabeth and their housemaid Mary Warren the escalating situation in Salem with 14 people in jail and the role of the girls especially Abigail in bringing about these arrests, wielding her new found power.

Simultaneously we see Abigail in the background lit by a spotlight. She pretends to faint when the names of people suspected of witchcraft are spoken confirming their guilt. Later on, the stage floor is dotted with spotlights casting a haunting, sombre mood as a distraught looking Reverend Hale speaks of his regret for his intervention in Salem following the execution of innocent people. 

Abigail is the ringleader and Erin Doherty portrays her convincingly as the chief agitator and mischief-maker but also with some sympathy. Abigail was an orphan and always getting into trouble. She worked as a maid for the Proctors before being dismissed. When questioned by Reverent Hale she exclaims ‘I am a proper girl’

Cowell portrays John Proctor wearing a boiler suit, as straight talking and level-headed. He refuses to believe the rumours of witchcraft sweeping across Salem like wildfire.

From the outset there is sense of foreboding about this production intensified by the girls with their eerie singing of psalms and shrillness, which at times seems overbearing.

The culmination is the charged Salem meeting house scene. Deputy Governor Danforth questions Mary Warren, Abigail and the other girls. Mary Warren says she and the girls were pretending to see spirits but Abigail remains steadfast. She claims to see a spirit in the room unsettling the others girls who start having convulsions with their arms outstretched and their pigtails appear to be standing on end. Danforth, Judge Hathorne, Hale, Parris and Proctor look on.

Overall this is a solid and engaging adaptation of the play with good acting and stagecraft. The play’s contemporary resonance, in its allusions to cancel culture and group think is striking.