Amid the tense drama of Sink or Swim’s fine staging of The Crucible, there’s a quiet scene that encapsulates both the strengths of this production and the genius of Arthur Miller’s familiar yet still-mesmerizing 1953 play about the Salem witch trials of the 1690s.
The tragic farmer John Proctor (a stalwart and charismatic Seth McNeill) has just watched his long-suffering wife Elizabeth (played with gut-wrenching stillness by Whitney Kaufman) dragged away to jail on suspicion of consorting with Satan—even though to us, through the “sane” eyes of retrospect, she’s the moral center of the story. John’s two old neighbors have also seen their loving, hardworking, devout wives taken by the witch hunt. Exhausted, the distraught men take leave of one another for the night, agreeing to talk more in the morning. But what hope do they have that the dawn will bring better tidings or renewed possibilities?
The crisis spans generations and genders. A group of hysterical teenage girls, led by Abigail Williams (played sympathetically, even rather sweetly, by Kristin Parker), center the most dramatic and scary moments. In one chilling scene, the girls ape in unison every utterance made by the vacillating Mary Warren (played superbly by Lauren Sowa); in another, they begin to scream at sudden visions of a huge, terrifying bird, right in the courtroom. And never have I seen a scarier performance of “Ring Around the Rosey.”
But the play is as much about men as women, and it treats sensitively even the worst of the witch-hunters, the crusading Reverend Samuel Parris (a fiery Michael Hardart), the seemingly weakest of the husbands (old Giles Corey, played heartbreakingly by Ashton Crosby), and the officials, some of whom do their cruel duty through gritted teeth and even tears.
It’s tempting to say of a play so brilliantly crafted by its author that it directs itself. But director Wendy Merritt and her fine technical team deserve significant credit for the superiority of this production. They make effective use of multiple levels and small spaces to evoke public spaces, private ones, and the dark forest, and Ms. Merritt draws superb performances from her cast. From the opening shout, as the girls sing and dance in the woods led by the Barbadian slave Tituba (played affectingly by Natalie Hollins), the production casts its spell—pun intended. Moments of humor are the leavening of this rough bread, helping to drive home its messages, among them the power of suggestion, the potential weakness of the human will, and the evils of intolerance.
MARY WARREN: She tried to kill me many times, Goody Proctor!
ELIZABETH: Why, I never heard you mention that before.
MARY WARREN: I never knew it before…
At the end of three hours we’re left wrung out.
Any cast this large is bound to have some standouts, like those mentioned above, but the ensemble as a whole comes off well. There are only two more performances of this straightforward, intelligent, emotion-packed, memorable production; go now while you have the chance.
Sink or Swim Rep‘s The Crucible runs in repertory with Romeo and Juliet through July 31.