Of all Arthur Miller's classic dramas, The Crucible remains his most difficult play to convincingly produce. One wrong choice from a director, one wrong gesture from a performer, and the play will elicit laughter instead of gasps of pathos.
From a literary standpoint, the story and characters are easy to comprehend. Set in Salem, Massachusetts the plot moves at a brisk pace and the audience quickly learns that the protagonist, John Proctor, is the object of young, wicked Abigail Williams' desire. She will stop at nothing to recapture the heart of this married man, even if it means accusing others of witchcraft and igniting the deadly flames of hysteria, a paranoia that will ultimately lead many to the gallows.
John Proctor carries a dark weight in his soul. A respected farmer and husband, he has committed adultery with a seventeen-year-old girl (Abigail). Yet, although he hides this fact from the rest of the community, he still values truth. He knows that the allegations of witchcraft are vengeful lies. John struggles throughout the play. Should he accuse his former lover of lying and attempted murder? Even at the cost of being publicly branded an adulterer?
The conflict intensifies during the play's final act. He is given a chance to save his own life, but to do that he must confess that he had worshiped the devil. His ultimate choice provides a powerful scene that every leading actor should strive to play.
Other complex characters within the play are a boon for actresses. The character of Elizabeth Proctor calls for a restrained performance, with occasional bursts of passion and grief.
Perhaps the juiciest role of the play, though she doesn't get as much stage time, is that of Abigail Williams. This character can be interpreted in many ways. Some actresses have played her as a childish brat, while others have portrayed her as a sinister harlot. The actress who takes on this role should decide, how does Abigail truly feel about John Proctor? Was her innocence stolen from her? Is she a victim? Or a sociopath? Does she love him in some twisted way? Or has she been using him all along?
Producing The Crucible
Now, if the plot and characters are amazingly coherent, then why should this play be a challenge to successfully produce? The scenes of pretend witchcraft can evoke a comic effect if performed the wrong way. For example, many high school productions have gone over the top during the possession scenes. The script calls for young women of Salem to gyrate as if in a demonic fit, to envision birds flying around them, and to repeat words as though they are hypnotized.
If done correctly, these scenes of mock-witchcraft can create a chilling effect. The audience will be able to understand how judges and reverends could be fooled into making a deadly decision. However, if the performers become too silly, the audience might chuckle and chortle, and then it might be hard to make them feel the profound tragedy of the play's end.
In short, the "magic" of this play will come from the supporting cast. If actors can realistically recreate what life was like back in 1692, the audience will have a vicarious experience. They will come to understand the fears, desires, and disputes of this small Puritan town, and may come to relate to the people of Salem not as characters in a play, but as real people who lived and died, often in the face of cruelty and injustice.
Then, the audience will be able to experience the full weight of Miller's exquisite American tragedy.