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The Rep turns up the heat with Arthur Miller's 'The Crucible.'

click to enlarge A TORMENTED CONFESSION: Despite his disdain for the Salem witch trials in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, tavernkeeper John Proctor's (Michael Stewart Allen) secret affair places him at the center of the community's frenzy and suspicion. - JOHN DAVID PITTMAN
  • John David Pittman
  • A TORMENTED CONFESSION: Despite his disdain for the Salem witch trials in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, tavernkeeper John Proctor's (Michael Stewart Allen) secret affair places him at the center of the community's frenzy and suspicion.

Just in time for Halloween and Election Day, audiences at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre will be served a hefty portion of witchcraft, social paranoia, political scheming, personal betrayals and principled sacrifice with Arthur Miller's "The Crucible." The 17th century setting in Massachusetts might be timely for Thanksgiving, too, but the community in Salem is a far cry from the coloring-book picture of fellowship we're used to.

There's a reason why "The Crucible," which used the Salem witch trials that turned neighbor against neighbor as an allegory for McCarthyism, sticks with us, a standout against the rest of our high school reading material. It's timelessly relevant, politically charged, thought-provoking literature, but it's also damn good entertainment — quickly paced, tension building, edge-of-your-seat, what's-going-to-happen-next drama.

"There's something about the play taking place in the 17th century that allows you to relate your life to it and draw your own conclusions," Gracyn Mix, who plays protagonist Abigail Williams, said. "Depending on where you are in your life, you'll see different things and have different questions."

As its name suggests, "The Crucible" is all about testing people's faith, ideals and relationships. It's about the testing of a community and the very idea of community, and what happens when trust among neighbors begins to erode. "The writing is so good, and the play is this full community of characters, most of whom have very hard decisions to make of one kind or another," Eric Gilde, who plays young minister Rev. John Hale, said. "It's like a big satisfying meal. People will leave the theater feeling satisfied by it but also excited, wanting to talk more about it afterwards."

Tarah Flanagan, who plays Elizabeth Proctor, whose suspicion that her husband has been an adulterer sets the turmoil in motion, says the members of the cast find themselves immersed in the play's questions, too. "As an actor, what often occupies your thoughts is your craft and your performance, but with this play I think about what I would do if I were Mary Warren. Would I be able to make that decision, weighing the truth against my life?"

Much of the play's action is driven by children, played by some impressive young actors from the Rep's Summer Musical Theater Intensive program. "They bring incredible energy to the room," Mix said.

"They are terrific. I never feel like I have to do anything differently," director Paul Barnes added.

Michael Stewart Allen, who plays John Proctor (and played the title role in The Rep's production of "Macbeth" last year) said, "You can see the play more than once and get something different out of it each time." Allen was excited to be portraying Proctor, who he calls "one of the greatest roles in American literature. He's inherently good, but he's done a terrible thing, and trying to reclaim his goodness in the world."

On the subject of witchcraft, Barnes said, "It's fascinating to try to wrap your mind around the values in the play, coming to terms with the understanding that people really did believe in witchcraft, and the power of evil to infect people."

Ryan McCarthy, who plays Salem minister Rev. Samuel Parris, elaborated. "There's this conception that the Salem witch trials represented a certain amount of ignorance and fear, but these were all very smart people," he said. "People thought and applied very complicated logical arguments to create this worldview and were always searching for the truth. It was interesting to see what motivated Parris, who ends up doing some terrifying things."

It's certainly tempting to project upon "The Crucible" any number of contemporary issues, but Barnes believes that the play digs deeper than that. "I think that can be seen in how so many characters have to contend with something at their very core. The things that define these people, their strongest ideals are tested, and that leads to some very tough decisions." Those decisions lead to varying degrees of damnation and redemption for the characters, and, as many in the cast pointed out, it's easy for us to lay blame on the people of Salem for the horrors committed there hundreds of years ago. Audience members should try to put themselves in the shoes of these characters and ask, what would they have done?

"The Crucible" runs Friday, Oct. 28, through Sunday, Nov. 13. Special events include "Pay Your Age Night" on Sunday, Oct. 30; Stone's Throw Beer Night on Thursday, Nov. 3; and "Sign Interpreter Night" on Wednesday, Nov. 9. More information is available at therep.org/attend/productions/thecrucible.

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