If we consider Arthur Miller's play The Crucible an essentially American drama—and the damning evidence all but demands that we must—let's be clear: The description is not a complimentary one. In its three acts, available for consideration in one of the best productions I've seen in recent years at Raleigh Little Theatre, what Miller effectively anatomizes is not an American mistake. It could be considered the American mistake, instead: the shameful history our body politic seems doomed to periodically repeat, because it has never fully reckoned with its lesson.
Particularly since voters in North Carolina and across the United States are potentially lining up to make the same mistake again, it might be wise to examine it, for a moment. In the 60 years since The Crucible was written, scores of critics have focused on the allegory Miller intended, paralleling the McCarthyism of the 1950s with the infamous witchcraft trials of Salem, Mass., more than two centuries before.
But another, more widely ranging parallel exists. The Salem episode, in which 19 people were hanged and a 20th was crushed between stones, was neither the first nor last time blood was shed over different beliefs on American soil. The same rhetoric and hysteria have remained with us ever since, periodically refocused on different populations whose simple presence someone in power considered anathema. That roll of honor includes former slaves in the period after reconstruction, communists (and, later, socialists), legal and illegal immigrants and Jews.
Gays and lesbians also have long been on that list. We are now forced to determine the threat they somehow pose to marriage (which must therefore be "defended") in our elections on May 8.
Before then, The Crucible serves as a dark mirror for our times. In the compelling performances of Jim Zervas and Diane Monson as John and Elizabeth Proctor, we see the dilemma of stoic but fallible humans suddenly forced to demonstrate, in court, that they are of the elect—at least in the eyes of the approved faith. Patsy Clarke's undeniable authority makes a guileless elder Rebecca Nurse a pillar of faith, and Laurell Bell clearly conveys the poignancy of the Barbadian servant, Tituba, an immigrant caught in a maelstrom of accusations when she is first accused of witchery.
Over the three acts, Brian Harvell's Rev. Hale moves from absolute certainty to absolute doubt as a consulting minister whose smug expertise on the denizens of hell is useless when confronting the more mundane, and political, demons of our realm. In those roles, Chris Brown conveys the iron will of Deputy Governor Danforth and Kirsten Ehlert brings us a teenage Abigail Williams, whose initial jealous lovesickness ultimately takes her deep into the realm of spiritual mania. These performances go far toward covering the more marginal work we find in other supporting roles.
How far have we come since those days of xenophobia, suspicion, theocracy and holy terror? More than 300 years have passed—and this month another would-be leader, again from Massachusetts, asserts that a similar war is being waged against religion. (The irony of his Mormon Church's encounters with ostracism is apparently lost on him.)
This time, the unacceptables are being called secularists. And you have to prove the negative if someone tags you and you aren't one.
Are the next witches ready to sign in, please?
This article appeared in print with the headline "Four nights of Raleigh tales."