August 2, 2017

Princeton Summer Theater Presents Miller’s “The Crucible”; Edgy, Contemporary Production Explores Relevance of Witch Trials

Photo Credit: Julia Peiperl

Princeton Summer Theater is presenting The Crucible at Princeton University’s Hamilton Murray Theater. This production of Arthur Miller’s 1953 classic is raw, artfully anachronistic, and evokes the spirit of a staged reading. Theatrical excess has been removed, leaving the ritual of performance.

Although The Crucible is set in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, this production avoids establishing a specific time and place. The set is minimal, and the costumes by Julia Peiperl consist of contemporary clothing. Props are limited to lawn chairs, flashlights, and a cooler that one would use on a picnic. A campfire is at center stage.

On opposite sides of the stage, two women sit at the campfire. The other performers join them as we hear contemporary music and eerie, otherworldly noises synthesized by Sound Designer Joseph Haggerty. An actor opens a script and begins reading the title, stage directions, and opening scene.

Betty Parris, the daughter of Reverend Samuel Parris, lies motionless. The previous evening, Reverend Parris discovered his niece Abigail Williams, Betty, and other young women immersed in a mysterious ritual in the woods. This production’s forest setting, established by the campfire, suggests that a theatrical performance, too, is a mystical ritual. Not unlike the Leading Player and his troupe in Pippin, the musical that opened Princeton Summer Theater’s 2017 season, these actors have “magic to do.”

The Crucible is the third production in a season that aims to “reflect the challenges posed to us today by a society that is divided over whether it is better to look to the past for inspiration or to move in the direction of future progress,” states Princeton Summer Theater’s website. “The characters in each play demonstrate vastly different ways of dealing with their individual histories, and are made stronger by facing this adversity.”

Pippin was followed by Spider’s Web, a 1954 mystery by Agatha Christie. Although a murder is central to the plot, the overall tone of that play is light, with a sense that conflict and disorder will be resolved. Spider’s Web was given lavish sets and costumes.

Following Spider’s Web with The Crucible allows us to observe surprising similarities between the two plays. Both involve imagined witchcraft, extended interrogation sequences, and ever-changing alibis frantically invented under the pressure of those interrogations.

The similarities end there, of course. The Crucible is somber, with little humor or sense that conflict and disorder can be anything but ever-present. The lighting by Alex Mannix fits this dark tone; like the set, the lighting is minimal.

“We are in a new era of witch hunts. I see divide, I see factions, and I see terror,” director Nico Krell remarks in his program notes. “The act of stepping into someone else’s shoes is our unique tool to bridge the divide.”

Rather than merely playing the historical characters, the actors — all college students or recent graduates — portray people their age reading scripts and playing the parts. This concept permits them to follow the advice given in the program notes, to perform as someone else. Mr. Krell has developed the idea further by assigning multiple roles to some of the cast members.

Rumors of witchcraft pervade Salem. Reverend Parris questions Abigail, the apparent ringleader of the ritual in the woods. She denies they were engaged in witchcraft. Parris asks Reverend John Hale, an expert in demonology, to investigate. Abigail threatens the other women into abetting the fiction that they were merely dancing in the woods; in reality they attempted to conjure a curse.

John Proctor sends most of the women away, including Mary Warren, his family’s maid. He confronts Abigail, who insists that she and the other women were not performing witchcraft. We learn that Abigail once worked for the Proctors; she and John had an affair, and because of this she was fired. Abigail still has feelings for John, which he insists are no longer mutual.

John and his wife, Elizabeth are shocked to learn that nearly 40 people have been arrested for witchcraft based on the testimony of Abigail and the other women. John knows that their supposed “possession,” is fictitious, as Abigail told him so when they were alone together. Elizabeth is upset to discover that John was alone with Abigail.

Mary gives Elizabeth a puppet that she made in court while acting as a witness. John threatens to beat Mary for neglecting her duties; Mary counters that she saved the life of Elizabeth, who would have been arrested for witchcraft had Mary not spoken in her defense. Mary refuses to identify Elizabeth’s accuser, though Elizabeth accurately suspects Abigail. Elizabeth begs John to tell the judges that Abigail and the other women are pretending, though John fears that this will force him to publicly reveal his affair with Abigail.

Reverend Hale, who is skeptical about the Proctors’ devotion to Christianity, challenges John to recite the Ten Commandments; John forgets “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Elizabeth is angry that Hale hasn’t questioned Abigail first. Hale warns them that many of the accused have confessed to witchcraft; John retorts that they would have been hanged had they not confessed.

Soon there is a warrant for Elizabeth’s arrest. John orders Mary to accompany him to court and expose the lies of the other women. She refuses and warns him that Abigail is willing to reveal their affair. John resolves that the truth must take precedence, despite any personal costs.

Eventually, Danforth threatens to sentence Mary Warren to hang; she recants her previous testimony against Abigail and the other women, claiming that John turned her against the others and harbors the devil. John is arrested after he angrily declares that “God is dead.”

During most of the trial sequence, no stage lighting is used. Instead, the actors point flashlights at each other. This effectively impairs the audience’s perspective, forcing us to see only what the actors — and by extension their characters — wish us to see.

Hale begs Danforth to pardon the others and end the trials. Danforth refuses, stating that pardons would cast doubt over the previous confessions and hangings. Hale urges the condemned prisoners to avoid execution by falsely confessing. John, who has refused to confess out of contempt for the court and his accusers, must decide whether or not to die for his beliefs.

Mr. Krell’s concept is well served by a talented cast. Rare transparency is offered by letting the audience hear stage directions, but this transparency is matched by Christopher Damen’s layered performance as John Proctor. John is a complex character with much to hide; unlike the copies of the script, John is anything but an open book. Mr. Damen selectively reveals different facets of John’s personality and history, a little at a time.

Abby Melick, too, brings an equally nuanced performance to the role of Elizabeth, mixing palpable fear of the situation with a determination to protect her family from anything that threatens to tear it apart. This is complemented by Alexandra Holden’s performance as the manipulative Abigail Williams.

Similarly, Ben Diamond’s sympathetic portrayal of an earnest Reverend Hale is matched by Robby Keown’s eerily dispassionate Danforth. The cast is well completed by Peter Giovine as Rev. Parris and Meagan Raker as Mary Warren.

Singing of hymns demarcates the play’s four acts. This use of music recalls Inherit the Wind, another mid-1950s drama concerned with the intersection of religion and government.

Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible as an allegory to McCarthyism after a director, Elia Kazan, appeared before the House Un-American Activities committee and named several theater professionals as members of the Communist Party. Like John Procter, Mr. Miller eventually was forced to face the very entity he decried; three years after The Crucible opened, he was called to testify before the committee. He was convicted for contempt of Congress after refusing to associate any of his colleagues with his political activities, though his conviction was overturned by the court of appeals.

This version of The Crucible does not offer the type of historical drama one might remember from a high school English class. Indeed, the script’s establishment of time and place is resolutely ignored. Stylistically, this staging is similar to many productions of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, or to Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film of Romeo & Juliet. With the help of a talented cast and creative team, director Nico Krell brings a contemporary perspective to a mid-century classic, highlighting its urgent relevance.

“The Crucible” will play at the Hamilton Murray Theater in Murray Dodge Hall, Princeton University, through August 6. For tickets, show times, and further information call (732) 997-0205 or visit