Informing and naming names are rampant. Rumors and hysteria become as persuasive as fake news. Many religious and civic leaders embrace silence rather than decry repression and detentions without due process.
Does all of this sound familiar? The great American Jewish playwright Arthur Miller confronted all of these injustices with moral rage and dramatic passion in response to the tyranny and anti-Communist and anti-Semitic agendas when Senator Joseph McCarthy put Americans on trial in the ‘50s. The result was the powerfully disturbing “The Crucible” ‒ set 250 years earlier during the Salem witch hysteria, with the same haunting inquest ‒ now resonating with compelling intensity in Nora Theatre’s season opener in association with Bedlam Theatre at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge.
Do not be fooled by the relatively spare school assembly-like space that designer Lindsay Genevieve Fuori has created for this unconventional production. Given the fairly austere lifestyle of the Puritans, this no-frills production makes sense. Bedlam director Eric Tucker clearly wants audiences to imagine that they are attending one of the witch trials that afflicted communities like Salem in the late 1600s.
To that end, the actors who play such pivotal characters as Deputy Governor Danforth (an electrifying Joshua Wolf Coleman) and Reverend Hale (an impressively understated Tucker himself) seem to speak directly to theatergoers at key moments as they call for tough prosecutions and understanding.
Tucker’s fresh staging also provides a you-are-there feel to scenes of hysteria, both as ring-leading teenager Abigail Williams (Truett Felt) faces off with younger, easily intimidated Mary Warren (Caroline Grogan) about poppets (puppets) and as Danforth stands off mob-opposing John Proctor (Ryan Quinn). Actors sometimes sit at the front of the audience as part of Tucker’s approach.
As these and other moments reach a fever pitch of high tension, set pieces of various sizes are combined to suggest courtroom tables and a podium for judges. The effect of quick set changes is often a helter-skelter upheaval of democratic principles, much like the despotic efforts of the McCarthy hearings to which Miller is alluding when Proctor (like the playwright himself when he was accused of Communist leanings ) refuses to name names.
Tucker carefully orchestrates this dramatic demonstration of Proctor’s integrity, particular as John Malinowski’s nuanced lighting focuses on the document that the adamant if somewhat tainted hero refuses to sign. Quinn has the right balance of growing frustration and quiet strength as Proctor. Susannah Millonzi captures wife Elizabeth Proctor’s vulnerability as well as her indomitable spirit. Coleman delivers Danforth’s pronouncements about the law with scary certainty. Tucker imbues Hale’s outreach to the Proctors with persuasive caring.
Felt captures Abigail’s malevolent scheming as well as her desire for John Proctor. Gifted Eliza Rose Fichter brings pathos to the role of scapegoated Sarah Good. Randolph Curtis Rand catches the buffoonish elements in seemingly responsible Reverend Samuel Parris.
As the fate of the Proctors hangs in the balance, Tucker has the actors playing the accusers as well as the accused move around barefooted ‒ with even Coleman removing one sock as Danforth. Whether this touch signifies a precarious humanity or not, the staging of “The Crucible” is magical enough to knock the proverbial socks off even the most tenacious theatergoer.
“The Crucible” runs through Oct. 20 at the Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge. For tickets, call 617-576-9278 or visit centralsquaretheatre.org.