American playwright Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" dramatizes the story of the Salem witch trials that took place in Massachusetts in the late 1600s. When a group of overwrought girls exploits the prejudice and superstition of their elders to send innocent people to the gallows, one man sets out to stop them. His efforts are impeded by a past affair with the girls' immature, vindictive leader.
Miller's classic exploration of fear, repression and mass hysteria was written in 1953 and addresses a mid-century America haunted by "witch hunts" of its own. Under its guise of symbolic narrative, "The Crucible" points directly at the United States House of Representative's Un-American Activities Committee.
Originally created in 1938 to uncover U.S. citizens with Nazi ties, the committee became better known for its role in investigating activities of public employees and private citizens, especially those in the theater, film and arts, when the U.S. blacklisted anyone suspected of having ties to the Communist Party.
Miller himself was questioned by the Un-American Activities Committee in 1956 and convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to identify others present at meetings he had attended.
James Edmondson of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival will direct the Southern Oregon University production of "The Crucible." Performances will be at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 26-27, and Thursday through Saturday, March 3-5, in the Center Stage Theatre on the SOU campus, 1250 Siskiyou Blvd., Ashland.
Tickets are $21, $18 for seniors and $6 for students, and can be purchased at the box office in the Music Hall adjacent to the Theatre Building, online at oca.sou.edu/boxoffice, or by calling 541-552-6348.
“It’s a great American play,” Edmondson says. "It came after Miller's successful 'All My Sons' and, a few years later, 'Death of a Salesman.' It was not as popular, partly because audiences realized he was echoing the intentions of the House's Un-American Activities Committee hearings. When the committee accused someone of being a Communist and demanded names, careers and lives were destroyed. That was the parallel Miller saw in the short-lived witch trials."
Edmondson says Miller's script is a good one in that it showcases young actresses.
"It's always hard to find plays for young women in theater departments," he says. "There are very few plays written about young women. I did this play for a conservatory in 1990 and realized it was good stuff for young actors to work on. The cast has several mature men, but no teenage men. The Salem girls range in age from 9 to late teens, and they were the accusers. They often faked fits of hysteria and gave the names of the persons who were sending out the devil to torment them. They caused the deaths of many people.
"It was not an uncommon thing to execute witches coming from Europe, but the Salem situation was unique. All of the accusers were of a certain age and gender. They also were urged to give names. That's the parallel."
Edmondson enjoys working with young talent, he says. He directed SOU's productions of "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches," "The Laramie Project," "The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail," "Of Mice and Men" and "A Streetcar Named Desire."
He's been a resident director and actor at OSF since 1972, directing more than 30 productions for the festival. Audiences have seen him in more than 90 roles in all three of OSF's theaters, including lead roles in "Richard II," "King John" and "King Lear." Edmondson also is founder, producer and director for the festival's annual AIDS benefit, The Daedalus Project.
October marked the centennial of Miller’s birth, and theaters around the country have hosted celebrations and commemorative events to honor the playwright. His career spanned seven decades, and at the time of his death, he was considered one of the greatest dramatists of the 20th century.