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031419-mda-nws-crucible

"The Crucible" at Playcrafters features Andy Curtiss and Jessica White as John and Elizabeth Proctor.

If you have any doubt that Arthur Miller's “The Crucible” — which takes place in 1692 Massachusetts as an allegory for 1950s America — is still relevant in 2019, see the sensitive Playcrafters director's note by the inimitable Patti Flaherty.

As a prelude to the electrifying, enthralling production at the Barn Theatre, Flaherty notes the incessant claims of “witch hunt” by our current President and the importance of ruminating on the original Salem witch hunt as dramatized in 1953 by Miller. “We must continually remind ourselves that mob mentality and mass hysteria are dangerous and those that point the finger are not always in the right,” the director writes.

“The Crucible” inspires us to stop and think, then and now. “Check sources before you spread that rumor,” Flaherty, a veteran actress and director, advises. “And above all, strive to see our fellow human beings as people — people who deserve our compassion and consideration, no matter who they are or if they are poor or downtrodden.”

Unfortunately, we live in an overheated political climate when certain people stubbornly cling to their own reality, regardless of irritating, mundane facts. Rumor, fear and discrimination become hardened into policy and law. This demonization of “the other” reached a nadir of political life during the reign of terror of Sen. Joe McCarthy in the early '50s, when he led Congressional hearings to expose Communists and anyone else he felt were putting the government at risk.

“The Crucible” presents the infamous Salem Witch Trials — with themes of betrayal, duplicity, and miscarriage of justice — as an allegory of that Red Scare, and Playcrafters' committed cast of 21 again makes that fear-mongering stance frighteningly current.

In a traditional, spare staging (with period costumes from Theatre Cedar Rapids and North High School Lancer Productions), rumors of witchcraft abound in the pious village of Salem after several girls are alleged to have danced naked with a slave woman in the forest. Paranoia spreads as fears of satanic evil feed into grudges and feuds among the townspeople, according to a synopsis.

Bill Peiffer is commanding and sympathetic as town minister Rev. Parris, who's unable to wake his daughter, Betty, who fainted with fright at being discovered. There also are claims that she's tried to fly; broomsticks are not mentioned. Parris is understandably nervous and fearful his upstanding reputation will be ruined, especially by his spitfire of a niece, Abigail Williams, ringleader of the girls.

Mattie Gelaude puts the emotional fire into that role — alternately menacing, manipulative, frantic, flirty, scared, and vengeful. It's one of many titanic, tempestuous portrayals here.

The consistently dominating protagonist in “The Crucible” is the tremendous Andy Curtiss as John Proctor, a farmer who had an affair with Abigail when she was a servant in his home. Fears of witchcraft are stoked by Abigail, who aims a vendetta against Proctor's virtuous wife, Elizabeth, who's also accused.

Curtiss is always intense and forceful and Proctor's thunderous rage is unleashed at several points. “Is the accuser always holy?” he helplessly wonders. You can see the wild, threatened fury in Curtiss' eyes, and he in turn volcanically threatens to expose Abigail and the young, innocent Mary Warren as frauds.

Jessica White as Elizabeth embodies the straight, moral backbone of the community. She's steadfast, steely and determined.

Mischa Hooker, a veteran of Prenzie Players and Genesius Guild, makes an excellent Playcrafters debut as Rev. Hale, an investigator of witchcraft. He has a stylish, charismatic stage presence and tends to dominate each scene he's in.

Another Genesius veteran, with extensive other stage credits, Michael Carron notches his first appearance on the Barn stage since 2004 as the stern, authoritative Deputy Governor Danforth, the chief judge in second-act trials. He's tremendously imposing and demanding in seeking answers to the torrent of devilish claims.

The connection to McCarthyism is clearest as Danforth orders girls to name names of other witches in town, under threat of punishment. Bella Kuta, already an acting veteran at 13, is heartbreaking as Mary, and a late scene where other girls on their knees mimic Mary is chilling.

Other standouts in the cast include Don Faust as Giles Corey, Craig Cohoon as Ezekiel Cheever, Jacque Cohoon as Tituba and Sara Kutzli as Ann Putnam.

Ironically, Arthur Miller (who also penned the iconic “Death of a Salesman”) himself was questioned by the Committee on Un-American Activities in 1956 and convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to identify others present at meetings he attended. “The Crucible” is thought-provoking, and as Flaherty notes, theater like this “civilizes us, and God knows, we need that now.”

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