CPH's intense 'The Crucible' severely tests our own humanity

It's unlikely that you know someone who was tried, convicted and hung for being a witch or conspiring with the devil.

The chances are much greater that you're familiar with a recent rumor running rampant and resulting in devastating consequences for the victim or victims. Maybe the victim--or perpetrator--was you and the results are irreparable.

Vices such as greed, jealousy, hatred and the thirst for vengeance pervade our society like unavoidable carcinogens. It's for these reasons, much more so than fast-approaching Halloween, that revisiting Arthur Miller's dark, chilling historical drama "The Crucible" makes perfect sense.

The Cleveland Play House first staged the piece in 1954. It was perfect timing, since that's about when Sen. Joseph McCarthy conducted his own "witch hunt" of American "Communists" and those who supposedly sympathized/schemed with them.

Miller wrote the play to draw parallels between the real-life Salem, Mass. witch trials of the 1690s and McCarthy's mission (the senator accused Miller, among many others).

Great plays can make us look inward, and "The Crucible" accomplishes that.

Someone I know quite well proclaims "We're a bunch of crazies" each time an act of terrorism or mass shooting occurs. Much has changed since Salem, Mass. was governed by a theocracy and executed "witches," decades before we became a united nation. But the more things change...

Fittingly, The Cleveland Play House, which has mounted a riveting, spell-binding production of "The Crucible" for its second production of the 2015-16 season, billed the play as one that "dares to put us all on trial."

As helmed by artistic director Laura Kepley, the production makes us feel like we're all enveloped in the action.

The set isn't just on stage, but comprises the entire intimate, flexible Outcalt Theatre, which has an "in-the-round" audience seating configuration for this production. It's almost as though the sense of hysteria is swirling around 1690s Salem and, by extension, our society.

The actors, clad in largely black or grey period costumes designed by Lex Liang to evoke the play's bleakness, use the entire auditorium. The climb the stairs and come to within an arm's length of us. They exit the theater, outside of which represents the world we live in.

You might feel as though the accusers in the play will pluck, at random, any one of us out of our seats, drag us onto the stage and, in front of everybody, accuse us of witchcraft.

Lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger illuminates each aisle of stairs at the end of acts. This can symbolize a harsh light shining on us, making us face our own crucible (defined on www.merriam-webster.com as a "severe test or trial.")

While there's no interaction with the audience, Kepley doesn't fully use the invisible "Fourth Wall," a term coined to keep the actors in character and unaware of the audience. There's no curtain before the play starts, which helps immediately draw us into the hysterical 1690s Salem. Furthermore, even before the play begins, some of the actors are in character, sweeping up or doing other chores; they're existing among us, in 2015.

Ropes hang uncomfortably close to the seating areas; they could be meant for any one of us. We may not face execution, but with malicious messages so easily spread instantly through technology, our reputation hangs perilously in the balance.

A sense of unsteadiness characterizes Scott Bradley's set.

When the production begins, a raised floor with wooden boards is held up by ropes, creating the sense that the characters are on shaky, unpredictable ground. As the production progresses, the floor gradually descends; as the hysteria grows, the society stoops lower.

Underneath the wooden board floor rests a forest-like area where the girls of the village dance. Some of the more "righteous" characters suggest that by doing so, the youngsters are sending out dark spirits or cavorting with the devil. The basement of the floor, therefore, can suggest hell. That underneath space also serves as the prison where the accused are locked up in, no doubt, a hellish environment.

All of Salem finds itself in such an atmosphere, where the citizens harbor deeply rooted jealousies and won't hesitate to make grossly exaggerated accusations. According to the theocratic government of the time, the devil is something much more deadly and serious than a Halloween costume or superstition. There are telltale signs of witchcraft, and even the most outwardly good-hearted aren't safe from accusations. Confessing to being a witch, if you're accused and the "symptoms" are "present" is your only hope from saving yourself from the rope.

Miller's true tale is intense, frightening and bleak, but also quite funny, in a dark way. That's largely because we know how irrational these people are acting.

The act of dancing in the woods at night is tantamount to committing a heinous crime.

Such a line as “We cannot look to superstition in this. The devil is precise," uttered by a minister "learned" in the signs of Lucifer, surely can't help but draw laughs.

The actor must strive for truth for that to happen.

It can be easy for a chuckle to escape the mouth of the actor playing The Rev. John Hale, what with such silly (at least to us) lines.

However, Ben Mehl, as the expert minister, gives a convincing performance. He carries an air of authority, speaking with the graveness of a surgeon informing a patient of a dangerous operation. During the trial scenes, Mehl turns Hale into a pleading defense attorney with a palpable sense of urgency.

Mehl is part of a cast whose members are fully inhabiting their roles.

There's Donald Carrier's petulant, self-centered, paranoid Reverend Parris, who believes his congregation's out to get him.

Katie O. Solomon deserves kudos as Abigail Williams, turning the teenager into a sarcastic, frighteningly vengeful, well, witch. Her voice has a severity that cuts through the air and chills the bone.

Mahira Kakkar creates a frightened, timid Mary Warren, speaking as softly at times as the class bad boy who is more mouse than man when sent to the office of a hulking, no-nonsense school administrator.

Esau Pritchett gives a well-rounded, powerful performance as the play's tragic hero, John Proctor, who's forced to choose between his life and his honor. Pritchett's Proctor conveys a loving tenderness toward wife Elizabeth (played as a woman with quiet strength and dignity by Rachel Leslie). When it comes to protecting his wife, Pritchett turns Proctor into a ferocious, yet devoted guard dog or mother bear. The actor also finds the character's rationality and the dignity Miller had in mind when creating such common, everyday men -- a character "ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing -- his sense of personal dignity," as the playwright wrote in his essay "Tragedy and the Common Man."

When we're in the presence of such a character, flaws and all(Pritchett makes Proctor a flesh and blood, imperfect human being) "the tragic feeling is evoked in us," the playwright wrote.

It's easy to be suffused with such a feeling at the end, not just for Proctor, but the kindly Rebecca Nurse (a sweet, grandmotherly Dorothy Silver) who, despite her apparent goodness, is hung for the "unnatural murder" of children.

Giles Corey (a somewhat outwardly foolish but brave elderly man of conviction, as played by Ray Shell) is another character easy to care about.

While it's not hard to sympathize with such individuals, one can't say the same for the likes of Deputy Governor Danforth, a judge whose hurtful words would seem to contradict his supposed devotion to God. He's played with a commanding severity and arrogance by John Herrera.

Village accusers such as Abigail Williams as well as Danforth and his deputies have made the Salem Witchcraft trials one of the saddest chapters in our country's history.

That's driven home, at the end of the production, by the haunting beating of drums as an apparently mud-caked, Neanderthal-like, chained Proctor and Nurse slowly, solemnly and helplessly make their way to the ropes.

IF YOU GO
WHAT: Arthur Miller's "The Crucible"
WHEN: Various times through Nov. 8
WHERE: Cleveland Play House, located within PlayhouseSquare in downtown Cleveland
For tickets, call (216) 241 6000.