Jackson drama captures atmosphere of fear found at witch trials

Friday, March 15, 2002

"The Crucible" was first presented on Broadway in 1953, just as U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy was beginning infamous hearings aimed at exposing Communists. The anti-Communist hysteria in the United States at the time inspired Arthur Miller to write this scathing indictment of the thought police, here disguised as the inquisitors at the 1692 witch trials in Salem, Mass.

"The Crucible" is not an accurate portrayal of the witch trials but captures the atmosphere of fear -- fear of disobedience to doctrine and fear of the power of women -- that sent many to the gallows.

Jackson High School drama teachers Sharon Ramdial and Bob Clubbs are to be applauded for challenging their students with such a serious piece of theater. Their excellent cast deserves even louder applause for their first-rate performances. Eight days before tonight's opening, the dress rehearsal reviewed was already superbly acted and well-paced.

The lack of scenery and the minimal sets put the focus on ideas worthy of attention.

In Puritan New England, young girls might have been seen dancing naked in the forest at night. Betty (Katie Jenkins), the daughter of the Rev. Parris (Josh Hill), has fainted. Other children don't feel like eating. The Devil's influence is suspected. Witchcraft is feared.

"I believe hurtful, vengeful spirits have laid hands on the children," the reverend warns.

Tibuba (Jessica Brown), a slave from Barbados, is browbeaten into confessing that she believes in the benefits of drinking chicken blood. Now the witch hunters are getting somewhere. "You were selected to help us cleanse our village," says the Rev. Hale (well-acted by Jarred Rouggly). He pays close attention to the number of times church members have been absent on the Sabbath and claims expertise in witchcraft.

Blake Burress gives a powerful, well-tempered performance in the role of John Proctor, the first man to stand up to the accusers who are imprisoning more and more women on suspicion of being witches. "Of course they confessed if they must hang for denying it," he answers.

His own wife, Elizabeth (Tabbatha Storz) is accused.

"Hell and heaven grapple on our backs," Proctor roars.

He is not a saint. Proctor has committed adultery with one of the girls, Abigail (Erin Hyden), who sets out to win him by branding his wife as a witch.

Storz adeptly portrays the multiply-wronged Elizabeth Proctor as a woman who is both angry at and fiercely loyal to her husband.

As Abigail, Hyden leads the girls in a frightening chorus at the trial that convinces Gov. Danforth (Zach Rice) that they and the servant Mary Warren (Brandi Burns) are bewitched. The scene is one of the play's best.

Burns is convincing in the role of Mary Warren, a girl overwhelmed by the forces of heaven and hell.

Rice ably portrays the grandiose Danforth, a man whose chief allegiance is to the reputation of the court -- not justice.

The rest of the cast is uniformly fine. Playing smaller roles are Morgan Meyer as Susanna Walcott, Ashley Booker as Goody Ann Putnam, Lucas Walker as Thomas Putnam, Rebecca Knight at Rebecca Nurse, Lydia Blades as Mercy Lewis, Christine Maire as Martha Lewis, Jon Lorenz as Giles Corey, Wes Smith as Francis Nurse, Gabe Nash as Ezekiel Cheever, Nick Baranovic as Willard and Justin Vandergriff as Judge Hathorne.

Like the black-listed artists in the 1950s, John Proctor refuses to save himself by accusing others. "The Crucible" reminds us that there are worse things between heaven and hell than death.


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