In 1692 Massachusetts, it didn’t take much to get someone, typically a woman, thrown into jail: just an accusation of her being a witch.
One didn’t need a lot of evidence, or often any at all, for the woman to be brought to trial and, frequently, sentenced to death.
These facts set the scene for "The Crucible," a classic tale by playwright Arthur Miller based on a dark chapter in American history — the Salem witch trials — opening Feb. 13 at Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre.
"There was an awful lot of research to be done on this play, especially since some of the events outlined in the play are true," director Charles Morey said. "It's a very important, very revelatory event in American history."
Morey, a former artistic director of Pioneer Theatre Company, has directed more than 90 shows for the company, including another production of "The Crucible" in 1997.
"Every time I've gone back to the play, I have a deeper and deeper appreciation for it," he said. "There's an argument to be made that it's the great American tragedy. It’s a great, cracking good, edge-of-your-seat melodrama. It’s very smartly constructed in terms of ever-building outrage ... at the unbelievable injustice that’s taking place, that’s being hoisted about them by the combined authorities of church and state.”
And, as Morey noted, church and state had little distinction at the time.
“In Puritan Massachusetts, it was only church members who got to vote, and that was a problem,” he said. “Society was changing and becoming more secular, and the church was incredibly fearful of that.”
Miller wrote the play, originally produced in 1953, as an allegory for what was happening in the United States at the time with accused communists being blacklisted with little or no evidence against them.
“More interesting is the actual witch trial, the hangings, are all incredibly relevant in terms of how they reflect on religious zealotry and fanaticism,” Morey said. “And it’s a very real part of the American psyche. What the Salem courts and government and Puritan church in 1692 struggled to do, and it played out again and again, was try to enforce uniformity of thought.”
Fletcher McTaggart plays John Proctor, a farmer who finds himself at the center of the hysteria.
“I’ve done a lot of research on it, and I’ve spent time in the area,” McTaggart said. “It takes on a different feel when they are real people and real events. It’s neat to see the area and what drew Arthur Miller to write the play.”
McTaggart has a background with some similarities to that of his character, he said.
“I grew up in a hard-working area and in a family where you went to work, supported your family and that’s just what you did,” McTaggart said. “And that’s John Proctor.”
But Proctor has an illicit affair with a servant named Abigail who once worked in his home. Fingers start pointing, and soon Proctor finds himself in the middle of the outcry.
“Things go terribly wrong,” McTaggart said. “The play is very much about John’s journey.”
“It is ultimately about John Proctor’s search for self-knowledge and his search for who he is as a man,” Morey said. “And of course, add to that an intellectual proposition and the great theatricality of suspected witchcraft, the supernatural, and the inciting event ... that lights the fire to ultimately 19 people being hanged and hundreds being tortured, one tortured to death. That’s not just the play; that’s historical fact.”
According to PTC's website, "The Crucible" contains brief mild language. Although an adulterous affair drives much of the plot, there is no sexual activity in the play. Due to strong thematic elements, the theater recommends the show for general audiences and children age 10 and older.
If you go ...
What: "The Crucible"
When: Feb. 13-28, times vary, matinees available
Where: Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East
How much: $25-$44
Erica Hansen was the theater editor at the Deseret News for more than three years. An area performer, she was also the original host of the radio program "Showtune Saturday Night."