The Crucible
Through Nov. 6
PlayMakers Repertory Company, Chapel Hill

From the outset, we all know what’s to come in The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s classic drama, now in a notable revival at PlayMakers Repertory Company. Stacked and dry as timber, the unspoken internecine grudges among the citizens of a small New England town will ignite when a new fear arises—that their neighbors have practiced witchcraft in secret against them.

Given the homogeneity of the community’s Puritan beliefs, the conflagration will quickly spread, and with those beliefs so thoroughly codified in their laws, the courts will swiftly move against the phantom menace. After more than two hundred people are accused of witchcraft in a town with a total population only three times that size, nineteen will be hanged on a wooded ledge overlooking Salem Village, Massachusetts. A twentieth will be crushed beneath large stones, and five more will die during incarceration. None of these particulars are a matter of dramatic invention; they’re all part of the historical record of the Salem witch trials of 1692 and 1693.

At PlayMakers, guest director Desdemona Chiang traces the paranoia and suspicion as it briskly spreads. In the opening scene, a sour Anne Putnam (Julia Gibson) immediately brands the mysterious illness of Betty, daughter of the village’s besieged preacher, Reverend Parris (Jim Moscater), “surely a stroke of Hell,” and insists that a witch caused the malady as well as the death of seven of her newborn children. When Parris’s credulous servant, Tituba (Shanelle Nicole Leonard), is accused of bewitching Betty, the bewildered woman admits to conjuring at the request of the village children. Given the choice of confessing to a compact with the Devil or being whipped to death, Tituba confesses; in the climate of hysteria, she and the children then name others as witches. Inevitably, a cascading chain reaction of accusations follows.

Miller’s script focuses on the triangle between skeptic farmer John Proctor (Ariel Shafir), his wife Elizabeth (Sarita Ocón), and Abigail Williams (Allison Altman), Parris’s niece, and the chief accuser among the village children. When Abigail, out of her own self-interest, accuses Elizabeth of witchcraft Proctor must convince the court of Deputy Governor Danforth (a steely Jeffrey Blair Cornell) that the girl is lying. Under Chiang’s direction, Cornell, Shafir, Altman, and Ocón stage a riveting courtroom confrontation that deftly sets up The Crucible’s tragic endgame.

Grier Coleman’s costumes and Josh Epstein’s lighting design suddenly, strategically shift us between two centuries on Narelle Sissons’s set of seasoned wood and iron: a jarring reminder that the 1690s were not the last time our culture has been ruled through fear. But another production risk for PlayMakers, the company’s first in-the-round staging in its forty-year history, required further adjustment on opening night when actors repeatedly became inaudible while facing away from the front audience banks.

Much of Miller’s script concerns how an invisible crime can be prosecuted, and an equally invisible innocence can be proved. But for me, all the evidence required of the diabolical is on display in the first scene, with the older girls Abigail and Mercy Lewis (Natalie Cabo). They’ve learned that they can achieve their wishes by instilling fear in others, assaulting and terrorizing the younger girls to get their way. They’ve also learned that, if they cannot realize their desires through natural means, sub- or supernatural ones— including murder—are fair game. The older girls have learned to lie, scapegoat, and divert suspicion by accusing others.

Then Abigail privately discloses to John Proctor the source of such dark arts—not loose spirits or some dark gentleman who prowls the forest, but the villagers themselves. “I never knew what pretense Salem was,” the lovesick girl bitterly exclaims, “I never knew the lying lessons I was taught by all these Christian women and their covenanted men!” The proof of that unfolds through The Crucible’s four acts, as the adults repeatedly take up such acts in broad daylight. The children have learned the ruthlessness and deepest fears of good Christian folk. In turning both of these back upon them, the young effectively seal their fate in this disquieting production.