Appropriate to a company whose chief mission is educational, Prime Stage Theatre's new production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible places a special focus on the play's youngest characters: the girls and young women of 17th-century Salem who call out their townspeople as witches.
The play opens, of course, with Betty Parris, niece of Rev. Parris, writhing in bed, apparently suffering a fever. On the curtainless thrust stage of the New Hazlett Theater, director Nona Gerard heightens the impact by having Betty lie before us, a yard from the front row, while we take our seats. Meanwhile, the PA booms vibrant, percussion-heavy African (or perhaps Afro-Caribbean) music. The soundtrack suggests the sensuality Salemite fundamentalists have repressed at their peril. Betty's twists and moans might not express torments of her spirit -- or her lymphatic system -- alone.
The Crucible famously reflects the McCarthy witch hunts of the time it was written, a half-century ago, and Miller's own blacklisting. A crucial issue is whom a society makes a prime mover of the wheels of justice -- to whom, in other words, it grants the power of accusation. Miller shows us that much of the conflict in Salem is political -- Rev. Parris frets about his "enemies" -- and economic, with evidence that accusers are after the land of the accused. And the highest authorities -- the reverends, the judge, the deputy-governor -- are blinkered by Biblical literalism and a pre-Enlightenment worldview.
But Miller's prime movers are children: girls scared of getting in trouble for frolicking sinfully in the woods, or else seeking to settle scores of their own. Gerard seems especially sensitive to this point. The girls' ring-leader, Abigail Williams, is played by Jennifer Murray with a hawkish focus, plainly driven by her desire for John Proctor, a man she can't have, and loathing for his troubled wife, Elizabeth.
Abby's deep-red skirt perhaps takes symbolism a bit far. But Gerard and her actors make clear that these scared girls -- who are, we know implicitly, otherwise powerless in their society -- relish their newfound authority. "The accuser's always holy now," laments John Proctor. And we can see it as easily in the brilliant moment when Abigail silences the deputy-governor -- by signaling that she might call him out, too -- as in the gleeful, terrifying wildness with which Gerard stages the maniacal courtroom performance with which the girls overwhelm those who question their honesty.
While a few of the supporting performances felt a little shaky, this is a very solid production, from Alfred Kirschman's effectively minimal set -- loomed over by a gigantic, and Biblically suggestive, apple tree -- to Gerard's smart pacing. In another imaginative touch, the second act opens with offstage voices sounding in utter darkness, disturbingly apt symbolism for the warped trial of an innocent townswoman.
Jerry Summers' Rev. Parris booms and glowers potently; Bridget Carey is deeply affecting as Elizabeth Proctor. As John Proctor, intriguingly, Tony Bingham is as tempestuous as the role demands, but he's also boyishly earnest, flustered rather than sure in his anger. It's an interesting reading, one that puts his wrenching moral journey into high relief even as it emphasizes the influence of his accusers.
Gerard follows the curtain call with a burst of recorded mean-girl laughter. There are witches, yes, but they're not flying through the air or strolling forest paths with Lucifer. And their spells and curses require little more to work their mischief than willing ears.
The Crucible continues through Sun., Nov. 5. New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square, North Side. 412-394-3353