Cast in the cauldron of public opinion

Set in 1692, The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s allegorical drama of witch hunts and hysteria, is still relevant today, says Colette Sheridan.

THE effects of paranoia and hysteria will be explored in The Crucible, which opens at Cork’s Everyman Palace Theatre on September 26.

This classic Arthur Miller play, written in 1953, is set during the Salem, Massachusetts witch hunts of 1692 and is a chilling allegory of the anti-communist red scare and congressional hearings of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the US in the 1950s.

The play is produced by Washington DC-based Keegan Theatre Company in association with Galway’s Town Hall Theatre.

The Keegan Theatre Company creates a cultural exchange between the US and Ireland. In Washington, it produces the work of Irish playwrights, performed by Irish actors, and tours American plays in Ireland.

Director Susan Marie Rhea was ambitious to bring The Crucible to Ireland. But it wasn’t able to tour the play “because of its massive size. It’s a very unwieldy play with a cast of 20,” says Rhea. “We had to figure out a way of bringing it here. Michael Diskin (from Town Hall Theatre) has wanted to do this play for a long time but it seemed too burdensome. We came up with a plan whereby Town Hall Theatre is the co-producer providing the stage manager and the set designer. Instead of bringing a full cast of 20 over here, we’ve auditioned local actresses from each town we’re performing in to play the four teenage girls.”

The play has been performed in Galway and Kilkenny. The Cork production features local actresses; Elizabeth Hubbard, Shannon Hurley, April Kelly and Jessica O’Sullivan. “Having local actors really saves on costs and it’s also very exciting and a bit bizarre. I’ve never worked on a play, where, in each town, there are different cast members. We rehearsed with the girls after school hours,” she says.

Rhea says The Crucible “is still absolutely relevant. You just have to think about religious intolerance and people making decisions out of fear, as well as the antagonism between Church and State. When The Crucible is well done, it’s absolutely riveting. I’ve seen it many times and directed it (in America) in 2003. It speaks to a very dark side in humans. It’s terrifying to think about the ability of humans to turn against each other.”

The play’s resonance stems partly from its basis in real events. “We have seen history repeat itself in various contexts over the centuries. Look at what happened in the wake of 9/11.

“The hysteria and bigotry that emerged against the Muslim community was driven absolutely 100% by fear.

“It was sickening. Why did we go there? After 9/11, there was a week or two when the country was pulling together. But then things turned and a witch hunt happened. It’s human nature to want a quick fix, to be able to lash out at a target,” she says.

Rhea says citizens of Salem accused fellow citizens of witchcraft because of a need to blame a sector of the community for ills suffered.

“It was part of the Puritan belief to think that bad things, like crops dying or children dying, happened for a reason. The poor and the elderly were first targeted. In the play, a slave girl is the first person to be accused of being a witch,” she says.

The Crucible is heavy-going, Rhea says. “The language is dense as well as being quite poetic. For me, the challenge has been to resist too much melodrama and to resist being too operatic. It’s critical that the actors stay true and honest to the situation and not get too carried away by the sweeping language and the devastation of the story.

“Otherwise, it would be too much to ask audiences to sit through. It’s about grounding it and keeping it human. While there is a lot of frenzied energy in the courtroom scene, it’s important not to get lost in that,” she says.

The play centres around a married farmer, John Proctor, who had an affair with a girl, Abigail. The ring leader of a group of teenage girls, Abigail confesses to having seen the devil conspiring and cavorting with other townspeople.

A train of events ensues, culminating in a courtroom scene and a harrowing finale.

Having previously directed the play, Rhea says that she had to “release what happened in that production and allow the cast to breathe its own life into it. We did a period of dramaturgy where we researched the era of the play. We had discussions about the inner lives of these folk and their motivations. There is plenty of room for interpretation.”

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