Spectral justice

Arthur Miller once wrote that he could tell a lot about the political climate in a country just by knowing that his play, The Crucible, was popular there.

Deborah Austin, director of the upcoming Asheville Community Theatre production of Miller’s classic, must be heartened, albeit in a strange way — to note that this year has seen more than its share of “witch hunt” references coming from our nation’s capital.

Damaging confessions, clashing ideals and opportunism in a climate of fear are features the play shares with this year’s headlines. Ironically, Austin notes, “The play was programmed for this season before the impeachment trial had even begun to take shape.”

Written at the height of the McCarthy era and the general American anti-communist fervor of the early 1950s, the play uses witch burnings in Salem, Mass., in the 1690s to explore how society demands conformity and people abuse power. The story’s poignancy develops, however, out of the interaction between the social/political problems and individuals’ personal relationships. In Salem, as in 1950s America, many individuals seemed unable to resist the mounting momentum to persecute the alienated. In Miller’s play, people’s fear of judgment becomes a fear of difference.

The action of The Crucible centers on John and Elizabeth Proctor. A recently ended adulterous affair between John and an employee (another startling parallel with today’s headlines) is discovered by Elizabeth, but not discussed. The “other woman,” a young girl named Abigail Williams, is accused of witchcraft and, in turn, accuses many prominent citizens of Salem — including Elizabeth Proctor — of the same crime. Her jealousy and hurt lead her to exploit the social prejudice of her time. The entire community is drawn in, and some of the play’s most dramatic and illuminating moments occur in the courtroom scene during the witchcraft trial.

In the real history of Salem, circa 1693, 20 people were hanged before the governor stepped in to stop the actions of the court — a court in which “spectral evidence” (meaning a person’s account of a “vision,”) was sufficient to produce a guilty verdict. Four years after the trials, the General Court of Massachusetts ordered a statewide day of “fasting and contemplation” to consider the horrific events at Salem.

While ACT probably will not require post-play fasting and contemplation, the production does boast authentic period costumes and convincing character development, compliments of several veteran actors. Costume designer Stan Poole created 35 unique period costumes for the characters in the play, which required 100 yards of silk, as well as 85 yards of other material. Says Austin: “We [became] a factory for costumes. Everything was made exactly as clothing was made in early New England, with the exception that we had electricity,” says Austin.

ACT veteran John Stanier moves from playing Charlie Brown in the last ACT production to the meatier (to say the least) role of John Proctor.

Another ACT regular, Wendy Kussrow (who plays Elizabeth Proctor) is enthusiastic about the production. “It brings together people from different areas of ACT, some who are new and others who have been with us for years,” she notes.

The show’s multigenerational cast includes an infant, a 6-year-old girl and several actors in their 70s. Austin explains that she aims to use the whole cast as a sort of unified chorus, to flesh out “the effects of these events on a community as a whole.”

The Crucible is Miller’s second-best-known play, after Death of a Salesman. The dialogue, some of it taken directly from transcripts of the original witchcraft hearings, captures the universal form of manipulative questioning so accurately that, as one drama critic described it, a Chinese woman who had been detained and imprisoned during the Communist revolution in China thought The Crucible must have been written by a Chinese playwright.

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