It’s not accidental that American playwright Arthur Miller’s 1952 play, The Crucible, made its debut at the time of the HUAC-McCarthy Communist ‘witch hunt.’
Miller – himself later investigated for former ‘Communist’ connections – saw in the infamous Salem witch trials of the 17th century an allegory of the political and social crisis that was unfolding.
More than an exercise in hard-hitting theatre, White Rock Players’ Club’s production – opening Oct. 9 at Coast Capital Playhouse (1532 Johnston Rd.) – is an object lesson on how well-meaning people can become party to persecution and injustice, and how the agendas of some can twist the ideals and values espoused by many.
In the play, a group of young girls are suspected of being bewitched – at a time when witchcraft is viewed as an immediate peril. But the church investigation runs out of control in an atmosphere of fear and hysteria, and accusations and counter-accusations multiply with increasingly tragic consequences for the community.
Director Ryan Mooney, also artistic director for the Players’ Club, says his emphasis is on the timelessness of this theme, which is why he has chosen a subtly ‘updated’ look for the production. Instead of a purist recreation of the setting of Salem, Mass. in 1692, the play has been shifted to a dystopian future that may or may not be that far removed from our own present.
“I don’t know Ryan that well, but he’s a risk-taker,” said Rebekah McEwen, cast in the key role of farmer’s wife Elizabeth Proctor, drawn into bleak tragedy because of the prior adultery of husband John (J.C. Roy) with one of the girls, the scheming Abigail Williams (Rebecca Strom).
“I love the way he sees people and what he draws out of actors. He doesn’t give line readings – he wants people to do their thing, but he has got a plan in mind.”
For McEwen, the show is a big departure. Known best for musicals (including numerous productions for Fraser Valley Gilbert and Sullivan Society), she was last seen on the White Rock stage as the ukulele-plunking, show-tune warbling ingenue in Wendy Bollard’s uproarious murder-mystery spoof The Game’s Afoot, Peninsula Productions’ summer show.
“That was so much fun – you could laugh it up and push all the boundaries,” she said.
In contrast, dramatic intensity of The Crucible is “a wonderful challenge,” she said, adding she is happy to have received special dispensation from husband Jonathan and their two children, Robert, 7, and Anne, 5, to indulge her passion for theatre once again.
“It is my outlet,” she admitted. “I step into the theatre and everything else falls away – I can step into the light and become a different person.”
The show has resonance for McEwen on a number of levels, she said. Interesting to her is its depiction of a small faith-based community – she is, herself, the daughter of a minister and grew up in Fort Langley, where she is now worship director, band and choir leader for the Evangelical Church.
“It’s very close to my upbringing,” she noted, adding that she feels that the play opens a “healthy” debate on the ways in which religion can be subverted – important to an understanding of genuine faith and spirituality.
“We want, as Christians, to be holy people – but what does that demand of us, where is the line?”
In this context, she said, one of the most significant characters is Rev. Hale (Tom Gage). One of the core tragedies of The Crucible is that his earnest attempt to save his flock by investigating the alleged witchcraft is derailed by other agendas that have nothing to do with religion.
“He tries to rectify things, but they have gone too far, and he ends up with blood on his hands.”
Aside from the intense drama, McEwen said she can also identify with the play’s depiction of marriage.
“It hits really close to home, the idea of a husband and wife just dealing with life,” she said. “Fortunately, I have a great marriage, but we all have times when we’re not on the same page.”
At the same time, playing Elizabeth is giving her an opportunity to inhabit a very different personality than her own, she said.
“She’s not very confident. She struggles with self-image. And she’s placed in a lot of difficult situations, trying to keep her marriage together, and family together and deal with ridiculous accusations.”
Other players in a large and talented cast include Dann Wilhelm, Mike Busswood, Tim Driscoll, Ken Fynn, Jane Mantle and Dave Carroll.
The Crucible runs until Oct. 26, with performances at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and a 2:30 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Oct. 20. Tickets ($18, $16 for students seniors and CCS members, $10 for previews Oct. 9 and 10) are available at 604-536-7535 or visit www.whiterockplayers.ca