Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” dramatizes the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, but it was written in response to events of the 1950s.
“He was responding to the Army-McCarthy hearings,” said John Fogle, artistic director of the Salem Theatre Company, where the play is opening today. “That may have faded from public memory to a good degree.”
In an essay he wrote in 1996, “Why I Wrote The Crucible,” Miller characterized his own sense of fear in that period as a “dead weight,” but he also described its disappearance.
“Fear doesn’t travel well,” he wrote. “Just as it can warp judgment, its absence can diminish memory’s truth. What terrifies one generation is likely to bring only a puzzled smile to the next.”
But if Joseph McCarthy’s pursuit of communists no longer seems vivid, the paranoia that “The Crucible” examines is always at work, somewhere in the world.
“In this play, you see the grip of this religious extremism,” Fogle said. “We have some of that in this country today, but we certainly see it very strongly in Iran, Afghanistan.”
One of the judges in Salem, the Rev. Hale, is skeptical about the trials and has a line that Fogle admires.
“He says, ‘Cleave to no faith when faith brings blood.’ That’s a good litmus test,’” he said. “If believing in something means we have to kill, or authorize killing of somebody else, we’re on the wrong track.”
The Salem Theatre Company staged “The Crucible” in 2003 and again in 2007, and audiences always seem to appreciate seeing it, Fogle said.
“We do it about every five years,” he said. “When you have a Tony Award-winning classic that is about the history of your city, and it turns out to be a crackerjack play, it’s a no-brainer.”
But this is the first time the company has staged it in its theater on Lafayette Street, which is smaller than other venues it has used.
“We have 21 performers, so it’s been a real challenge to figure out how to wedge this show into our stage,” Fogle said. “But I like challenges like that.”
He also hasn’t made it easier on himself by attempting to bring the fears of Salem’s residents back to life.
“The difficulty for us as artists and the audience today with this play is imagining the rigors of life that the Puritans lived through in 1692,” he said. “They were living in the wilderness. It was harsh. They were surrounded by hostile Indians, and there were wars breaking out around them.”
There were also wild animals to deal with, who not only attacked them, but also ate their crops.
“On top of this, the Puritans believed the devil was ready to pounce on anybody who was weak, and the devil lived in the forest,” Fogle said.
He has, therefore, taken out his curtains and backstage space and created “something of a forest” in the theater.
“We’re trying to get a little bit more of an environmental, interactive experience for the audience,” he said.
This creates technical challenges for the production, such as where to put props and actors when they’re not on stage, but Fogle believes it will pay off.
“I think people will be surprised,” he said. “Let’s shake it up.”
Fogle is also experimenting with using sound to create atmosphere, which also has challenges.
“We won’t be using music, because Puritans didn’t believe in music,” he said. “We’re using a drummer, who I hope will add some visceral excitement.”
That instrument can create either the tension in a march to judgment, or the rhythms associated with Tituba, a slave from Barbados.
Tituba is accused of witchcraft early on in the play, after being described as leading several girls in a dance in the forest.
“Dancing was forbidden for the Puritans,” Fogle said. “It’s like the way the extreme Islamists look at our pornography.”
As a cultural outsider, Tituba represents freedom for the Puritan girls, but a potential threat to their parents.
“She doesn’t have a lot to say, but she’s a force in the drama,” Fogle said.
If you go What: "The Crucible" by Arthur Miller When: Thursday, Sept. 26, to Saturday, Oct. 19 Where: Salem Theatre Company, 90 Lafayette St., Salem Information: Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. Tickets are $25 for adults, $20 for seniors and $10 for students. They are available online at www.salemtheatre.com or by calling Ovation Tix at 866-811-4111.