A rigid belief system. A claustrophobic environment beset by paranoia, gossip and the fear of the unknown. The setting has parallels with present-day America, say Perseverance actors performing in Arthur Miller's 1953 play "The Crucible," and there lies the relevance of the drama about the Salem, Mass., witch hunts of 1692.
Miller was condemning Sen. Joseph McCarthy's "Red Scare" Communist hearings of the 1950s, but might as well have been talking about any era in history when fear and unchecked hysteria ran rampant.
"The Crucible," true to Miller's text and starring a cast of more than 20, opens at Perseverance Theatre Friday, Jan. 13, and runs through Feb. 5.
"This is a play that at its core is about staying true to yourself, despite what society says you should do," said Andrew Cassel (Thomas Putnam), a Fairbanks actor making his first appearance with Perseverance.
"Especially nowadays, when our country is involved in a conflict overseas that not everyone feels is for the right reason, it's interesting to hear Miller putting words in people's mouths 400 years ago, saying you're either on our side or against us. People who oppose that are literally steamrolled by the administration into going along with what they're saying."
Eleanor Holdridge is making her first trip to Alaska to direct the play. Holdridge lives in Philadelphia and worked with Perseverance Artistic Director PJ Paparelli at The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C.
"I've never done Arthur Miller before," Holdridge said. "It's really interesting to do this play, because it's a large cast just like a Shakespeare or a classical play. There's something about this play that's epic in scope. It's about a town, but not about a couple people behind a fourth wall and tables and chairs. It's really about community and what happens when fear enters a community and what happens when that fear is allowed to explode without being checked by reason."
Holdridge and set designer Art Rotch, a Juneau native now working toward his master's degree at New York University, have created a simple-but-complex set inspired by 1950s design. Stefan Hakenberg, co-founder of the Juneau avant-garde music festival CrossSound, has contributed a moody, off-kilter score.
When: Opens Friday, Jan. 13, and runs through Feb. 5
Starring: Abigail Williams and Jake Waid.
Director: Eleanor Holdridge.
"In some ways the text is straightforward, and in some ways it's filled with poetry and meaning and hidden layers of images and words that create an environment that is quite rich," Holdridge said. "(Stefan and I) are trying to get at what the underlying meanings are in the text - the subtext of the characters and the feelings of fear that permeate the town and the village."
Perseverance veteran Jake Waid stars as John Proctor, a simple farmer with a secret, ultimately hanged for trying to tell the truth. Juneau-Douglas High School sophomore Cate Ross, last seen in "The Passage Inside," co-stars as Abigail, the shifty leader of the girls who accuse the townspeople of witchcraft. The cast spans generations, from 13-year-old Alice Ottoson-McKeen (Betty Parris) to Perseverance regular Charlie Cardwell (Giles Corey) and his mother, Jane Richmond (Rebecca Nurse).
"Abigail starts out with a lie to save herself and then she accuses a whole bunch of people of being witches," Ottoson-McKeen said. "There's a lot of lying in this play and it turns into bigger and bigger lies."
The play begins with Betty, unconscious on her bed. Her father, Rev. Parris, questions Abigail, who reveals that the girls were participating in some sort of cult in the woods led by Tituba, Parris' slave. Abigail drank the blood of a chicken to plant a curse on Elizabeth Proctor, husband of John, with whom Abigail had a brief affair. Abigail swore the rest of the girls to secrecy about the forest ceremony. The townspeople find out, however, and begin to gossip about the presence of witches in Salem.
Rev. John Hale, a minister from the neighboring county, is brought to Salem to investigate. He interviews Abigail, who accuses Tituba of being a witch. Tituba confesses her faith in God and accuses Goody Good and Goody Osborne of being witches. Betty wakes up, and she and Abigail list several more townspeople who have purportedly been consorting with the devil.
That's the end of the first act, but it's already set in motion a domino effect of lies, betrayals and accusations that engulfs most of the community. At the beginning of the second act, Deputy Gov. Danforth has arrived to supervise the witch-hunt trails. Fourteen people have already been arrested.
"Fear drives people to do things they wouldn't normally do," Cardwell said. "Our government has been perpetuating a certain amount of fear in order to put forward its own agenda, and I think that's real relevant in the case of what's happening in the play."
"It's also about mass hysteria and making assumptions ahead of gathering facts and really knowing what's going on," Richmond said. "Rev. Hale leads people without intending to do it. He of all people really wants to do the right thing. He has a firm belief in God and has a firm belief in the devil.
"That mass hysteria builds and everybody gets caught up in it, save just a few. Proctor, his wife, myself, and Giles Corey are the only ones who are able to maintain something of their sanity, even though they have their own fanaticism."