Conformity is powerful. Even here, at Case Western Reserve University, you can feel it. You raise your hand to ask a question. You might be asked to stand. You get up and your voice, clear at the beginning, slowly weakens as you notice that the eyes of your classmates have started to fixate on you. You can see they’re annoyed, vexed by what you are saying. The professor is not receptive to what you’re saying and asks to talk to you after class. You wish you had not even raised your hand in the first place. Yes, there is such a thing as a stupid question.
But in all seriousness, we still have a long way to go before we stop being suspicious of others who are different from us. Few works capture this sense of paranoia; this dark side of community, and none are as famous as Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” the final play for Eldred Theatre this season.
Miller wrote the play in the 1950s, using the Salem witch trials as a historical allegory to the McCarthyist attempts, in Miller’s own time, to hunt down anyone with a past or present affiliation to communism. But “The Crucible,” unlike Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” has a life beyond the allegory that people often forget: it’s also a great play.
Director Donald Carrier explains the difficulty in staging a play that is so famous for its allegorical significance. He says you have to look beyond the temporal nature of the play and see it in a universal sense, as a play about individual conscience vs. collective conformity rather than just about McCarthyism. People also tend to think that “The Crucible” is a static play that chronicles uptight Puritan society.
Sure, it has Puritans, but it is anything but uptight. It is true that the Puritans practiced a stringent form of Christianity, but human needs and emotions still found their place. The show is filled with incredible high and lows and moments of insane hysteria and shrieks of witchcraft, down to the silent judgment of a husband by his wife. Carrier explained that these characters are caught in a “struggle of life and death,” and encourages his actors to play these characters “passionately.”
The actors have been working very hard to bring audiences an excellent production. The sheer scale of the production is quite impressive. With its 21-member cast, “The Crucible” is one of Eldred’s largest productions, featuring many students who are making their final appearance on the Eldred stage. But even with such an ensemble cast, the individual characters possess stark personalities.
I had an opportunity to talk with Kelly McCready about playing Elizabeth Proctor, the wife of the protagonist, John Proctor (Zac Olivos). In talking to McCready, it was apparent how grateful she was to be playing such a complex and beautiful role as Elizabeth and share the stage with her classmates one final time. Elizabeth is the loyal wife of John Proctor and is accused of witchcraft by Abigail Williams (Hillary Wheelock), a former maid who had an affair with John.
Clearly a model of Puritan domesticity, Elizabeth is still an incredibly strong character who stands by her husband and her principles throughout the trials with which she is confronted. Although she, herself, is not religious, McCready said that she “admires Elizabeth’s certainty and pride” that comes from her Puritan faith. Nevertheless, she is also a complex character who always felt “plain” and therefore was unlovable; feeding the coldness that pushed her husband John into an affair with the passionate Abigail.
The play is directed in a traditional style with naturalistic costumes and set. The costumes aim to be accurate reproductions of Puritan clothing, simple and heavy. The women wore corsets, and so do the actresses. “It’s quite difficult to breathe,” said McCready. The set also sets the tone of the play. It is designed with the atmosphere of the witch trials in mind. The set is dark and cast members move shiftily about in the background, illustrating the suspicion and paranoia of the time. Blackened scaffolding looks as if nooses could hang from its charred timbers, a backdrop to the immolation of a world collapsing under its own hypocrisy.