Salem Theatre Company's production of "The Crucible" opens tomorrow night at First Church at Salem, Unitarian. The show runs through Nov. 25.
While Haunted Happenings has become a commercial boon for the city, this show will take a more focused and serious look at Salem's witchcraft history, and the hysteria that led to 19 executions of supposed witches, says director John Fogle.
As such, Fogle says, the show is true to its historic roots and to Arthur Miller's original 1953 script.
"We don't do any 'concept work' with a classic," Fogle said of the production that the company also performed in 2003. "We just try to do justice to it."
Although Arthur Miller's original play was intended to draw similarities between the witchcraft hysteria of the 1690s and McCarthyism and the Red Scare of the 1950s, Fogle says he's not using his production as a "soapbox to talk about current events."
As the company rehearsed in the basement of First Church Unitarian in Salem earlier this week, with players running through lines, lighting and music cues, some of them talked about what Fogle dubs the "homegrown history" of the piece.
One of the most important characters is John Proctor, who is played by James Wilcox of Beverly.
Wilcox said he was drawn to playing this character because of Proctor's troubled past: The 1690s farmer in the play has an affair with a younger Abigail Williams, played here by Courtney Bennet.
"Proctor wrestles with his conscience, and despite his sinful past" works to seek truth, Wilcox said.
"I consider myself a person of faith; there is a lot I wrestle with," he said during a rehearsal break. He said while he certainly hasn't lived the troubled life of John Proctor, he did connect with the play's deeper themes once he got beyond the memorization of his lines and cues.
Jim Butterfield of Essex, who plays Thomas Putnam - "an important but small character" - has been acting for almost 40 years. He points out that not only is Salem known as a historic place, but the church where this play is being performed has its own ties to the witchcraft trials.
"This congregation was one that some members (who were accused of witchcraft) belonged to," Butterfield said.
He has ties to the story: His house in Essex is on land that once was farmland where the real John Proctor lived with his family when he was a teenager.
Fogle said one of the challenges in presenting the play was portraying New England life during this turbulent time.
"The challenge is to recreate the incredible times in which the Puritans lived, and what it must have been like to live in Salem in 1692," Fogle explained. "Diseases were rampant, Massachusetts had lost its charter with England, so no one knew who owned what."
All that unrest and strife meant that for many of the religious New Englanders looking for explanation, "the devil was the Puritan's constant companion."
Fogle said what strikes him most about the Salem of the 1600s is that "people were hanged based on spectral evidence," - intangible evidence, wherein one person claimed that another person's 'spirit' meant to do them harm - rather than on real physical evidence.
Whether audience members watch the play to learn about the city, or to examine current events as Miller intended, "It's wonderful to be doing this particular play in Salem ... it's great fun," Butterfield said.
If you go
* What: "The Crucible" by Salem Theatre Company
* Where: First Church at Salem, 316 Essex St., Salem
* When: Opens Friday and runs through Nov. 25, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 7 p.m.
* Tickets: $18 for adults, $15 for seniors and kids, available by calling 978-790-8546 or online at www.salemtheatre.com