Hunting down a message

Considering the newly created U.S. Department of Homeland Security and our current climate of war hysteria, it seems appropriate that Blue Ridge Community College’s Belfry Players chose The Crucible as their latest production.

Then again, if they’d done the play five years ago, when then-President Bill Clinton was impeached for sexual dalliances with a young intern, it would have seemed timely as well.

Of course, it might also have resounded with audiences in the early 1990s, with the fall of Communism still fresh in the public consciousness and the bloody aftermath of the Rodney King trials grabbing daily headlines.

Arthur Miller’s cautionary witch-hunt tale, written about the Salem Witch Trials in 1692 in response to the McCarthy anti-Communist hearings of the 1950s, is a play “that will definitely survive its playwright,” says director Deborah R. Austin, who previously directed The Crucible for Asheville Community Theatre in 1999.

“The play has such a universal theme that it will continue to be done even if there isn’t a war brewing or individual rights [are] being questioned,” she says.

Salem, a small town in colonial Massachusetts at the time in which The Crucible is set, remains synonymous with one of the most frighteningly bizarre events to take place in what had yet to become the United States.

Starting in January 1692, when several young girls became sick and linked their illnesses to the presence of witchcraft — then codified in the colony’s fledgling but harsh legal system — the town quickly found itself floundering in witch hysteria. The panic was fueled by a court system that asked suspected witches to name others — and ended up jailing more than 100 people.

By the end of the year, 19 “witches,” many of them formerly well-respected citizens, were hanged for their alleged crimes, and several others died in prison.

Miller, who’d found success with his Pulitzer Prize-winning work Death of a Salesman and with All My Sons, wrote The Crucible at the time the American government was pursuing suspected Communists in the 1950s.

The modern witch hunt culminated in a blacklist that banned writers, artists and musicians from working in film and television for decades.

While The Crucible‘s first production in 1953 was panned — Miller attributed the poor reviews to both the play’s sensitive material and the director’s bad artistic choices — later versions succeeded, and the work found its way into high-school curriculums and community-theater groups worldwide.

Sherry Raker, Belfry Players’ artistic director and the producer of the current production, read scripts and worked with writers for NBC in New York in the 1950s. She remembers the McCarthy era and its effect on those in the entertainment industry.

“Producers were under great pressure about who they hired as writers and actors,” she recalls. “You had to have a pretty stiff backbone, to say nothing of connections, to buck the trend.”

While artists are relatively safe from those types of blacklists today, Raker says many of Miller’s concerns are still relevant.

“There’s a certain paranoia afloat,” she says. “[The play] just shows how easy it is for those feelings to get out of hand.”

Jennifer Szczesny, who plays Elizabeth Proctor in the play and directs the drama department at Blue Ridge Community College, says she asked the Belfry Players — the Flat Rock school’s theater-in-residence — last spring about collaborating on The Crucible.

The script spoke to Szczesny’s concerns about minority rights in the wake of this country’s war on terrorism.

“[The Crucible] is about tolerance,” she says. “With all this crazy stuff going on — people being attacked because they appear to be of a certain ethnicity — I thought the message was timely.”

While it’s easy to condemn a witch hunt once it’s known there are no witches, it’s harder to question a policy when a threat — of terrorists who could kill thousands of people, for example — is more immediate. Austin says the debate over this paradox persists.

“Everyone’s discussing the appropriateness of detaining people who are different,” she explains. “Many have said the world has changed since 9/11, but for the safety of the many do you sacrifice the rights of the few? The meeting houses and churches of Salem were discussing that as well.”

The cast ranges in age from 7 months to 85 years, though it’s largely made up of actors on the two extremes of that spectrum.

Charla Schlueter plays Abigail Williams, a servant girl who has an affair with John Proctor and exploits the witch trials for to deflect attention from herself.

Schlueter, whose character was contrived by Miller, says she’s had trouble justifying Abigail Williams’ behavior.

“It’s about saving herself,” observes Schlueter. “Obviously, she believes in what she’s doing. She feels that all her life [the people in the town] were denying basic human desires. She felt they kind of deserved [being accused of witchcraft].”

Szczesny, however, draws a more cynical lesson from Abigail’s experience:

“If you mess up, cover it up with a bunch of lies and kill a bunch of people, and you’ll be fine.”

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