Trial by fire
Sometimes, theater is as much about what isn’t on stage as what is.
At a recent rehearsal for Carson Performing Arts’ production of The Crucible, some imagination was needed to fill in the missing details: the sober Puritan costumes, the claustrophobic rooms and the stark black crosses that will divide the stage and overshadow the actors, both literally and figuratively. But director Karen Chandler, Carson High School’s drama teacher, is confident her students will do justice to Arthur Miller’s pointed social commentary that likened the McCarthyism of the 1950s to the Salem witch trials.
“My kids are flexible,” says Chandler, watching her students haul long, heavy wooden benches across the stage for a courtroom scene. “They wouldn’t dream of complaining because they don’t know any different!” she adds. Because Carson High doesn’t have its own theater, school productions are staged at the community center, which gives the students a limited amount of time to prepare their show. That means they’re working against the clock to be ready for opening night.
The Crucible is set in colonial-era Salem, Mass. Reverend Parris (played alternately by Richard Brown and Colin Crowley) has caught a group of teenaged girls, including his own daughter Betty (Rebecca Jolly and Alicia Freeman), dancing in the forest with a female slave named Tituba (Briana Bollman and Brittany Cook). Betty has fallen into a coma-like state, leading many to suspect witchcraft. Although the girls deny any wrongdoing, Tituba confesses under interrogation to having consorted with the devil, prompting the girls’ leader Abigail Williams (Caitie Berger and Krystle Gordon) and her friends to accuse a number of townspeople of witchcraft. One of the accused is Elizabeth Proctor (Christine Dahlinger and Darian Horrigan), the pious wife of local farmer John Proctor (Jeremiah James and Robert Stewart). Abigail was the Proctors’ servant until Elizabeth discovered that Abigail and John were having an affair and that Abigail still desires John. John’s servant girl, Mary Warren (Elysa Guitterez and Erin McHam), was one of the girls caught dancing in the forest, and John forces her to testify that the other girls are lying. But her testimony is not believed.
As the witch hysteria grows and the trial drags on, the accused are offered a choice: They can lose their lives or falsely confess to witchcraft. John, now accused of witchcraft as well, can save himself and his pregnant wife by incriminating others; but are their lives worth the loss of their integrity?
When selecting this play for her students, Chandler says she considered not only its relevance to current events but also its ability to accommodate her troupe of actors. “I want every single person to get the [onstage] training,” she says of her advanced drama lab. “This is educational theater—you can’t learn to flex that muscle in a classroom.” Two alternating casts, which rotate from show to show, ensure that each student gets a chance to experience acting in front of an audience.
Back on the set, Chandler is offering advice to her actors, who will all remain visible onstage throughout the play. “You can choose to watch the scene and be knowledgeable of the truth, or you can be turned away from the scene because you’re hiding your head in the sand,” she says. That decision will resonate for modern audiences as well. Finding similarities between Miller’s scathing criticism of mass hysteria and intolerance and the state of the world in our own time is one part of this production that doesn’t require much imagination.