God gets a bad rap in most stagings of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. The characters are either “with the Lord”—and inside the sniveling Rev. Parris’ clapboard meeting house every Sunday—or running around the woods naked “with the devil” and headed for the gallows. There’s no middle ground, and the judges who decide who’s with God and who’s not are pretty hard-ass about this perceived divine dichotomy.
But in the Keegan Theatre’s well-done homespun production, the motivations behind the Salem witch trials go far beyond piety. It’s about class. It’s about servant girls standing up to their abusive masters. It’s about the 99 percent of colonial farmers facing off against the 1 percent of wealthy landowners. It’s about rural ministers getting up the guts to tell off bigwig theologians from Boston.
Not only are these text-grounded interpretive twists timely, they make The Crucible more than an allegorical tale about revenge, paranoia, and religion. And given that themes of paranoia, inspired by the 1950s Red Scare, established The Crucible as an American classic, that’s high praise. Credit director Susan Marie Rhea with closely reading Miller’s text, and honoring it with a production worth seeing.
Rhea’s first key, interpretive detail comes in the opening of Act 2, when Elizabeth Proctor (Karen Novack) makes an early, unscripted entrance. She’s carrying a baby through a darkened house, disappearing from view before her husband (Mark Rhea) appears to begin the act as Miller wrote it. There’s an unreturned kiss, and a moment later, the question: “Are you sad today?”
In the audience, lights flicker on like battery-operated candles. Click: post-partum depression. It does not justify John Proctor’s dalliance with Abigail Williams, as just revealed in Act 1, but it does explain why an otherwise dear and loving husband would roll around in the hay with a servant girl.
Sarah Lasko, a University of Maryland senior, does well as the spiteful Abigail, but Emily Riehl-Bedford, a recent Vassar grad, is even better as Mary Warren, and Rhea wisely raises the profile of the Proctors’ dim-witted current servant. Riehl-Bedford’s bulging eyes dart about the room as she fidgets nervously. She’s been sent to the woodpile one too many times, and she’s not gonna take it any more. When the girls burst into hysterics and accuse townspeople of being “with the devil,” it’s not so much about attention-getting as it is about empowerment. “I’m amazed you don’t see what weighty work we do,” Mary Warren tells Proctor when she comes home from court, as if she’s looking her abusive master in the eye for the first time.
The accusations start with Caribbean servants and town drunks, but as more respectable people are accused, the lawyers and landowners running the trials take aim at the underclasses. This is made obvious, in part, by Kelly Peacock’s attentive costumes, and the difference in bearing and accent between the farmers, landowners, and lawyer-types. This, too, is in the text. The crops are rotting in the fields and the feral cows are rambling about town, Proctor says. The number of accused thrown in jail nears 100.
There are several moments when the foreboding tension is so successfully conveyed, you may cower in the Church Street Theater’s aging, creaking chairs. That’s not unusual at a good production of The Crucible; the Salem Witch Trails make for a cringe-worthy theocratic experiment. But Keegan acquits God from the whole mess. This is a play about rational people making logical choices, with deeply disturbing results.