Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ brings ‘total witch hunt’ to Olney Theatre

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'The Crucible' at Olney Theatre (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — The phrase “total witch hunt” has been in the news constantly lately, used by President Donald Trump to deny allegations of sexual affairs and Russian collusion.

So like any savvy community theater, Olney Theatre Center has latched onto the phrase as the ultimate promotional material for Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” now through May 20.

“It was sort of fortuitous that this play came along,” lead actor Chris Genebach told WTOP. “The fact that we have a president that likes to use that phrase certainly works out.”

“And he likes to Tweet!” co-star Rachel Zampelli added. “How fortunate for us?”

Set during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, a God-fearing Massachusetts town suspects that a clique of young girls has unleashed a demonic terror. Before long, powerful figures in the church and state capitalize on the witchcraft paranoia to advance their own political agenda.

“Some children start hysteria (when) they get caught dancing in the woods,” Zampelli said. “To cover their own butts, they start pointing their fingers, and everyone starts pointing at each other, and everyone has to keep doubling down on their lies and suspicions. #FakeNews is everywhere, and it escalates very quickly and it becomes life or death very quickly.”

Miller initially penned the play as a parable for McCarthyist paranoia in the 1950s.

“This is a parable from the McCarthy era, which was a time of paranoia and accusations in an attempt to discredit people or ruin them for other people’s own gain,” Genebach said.

The allegory was personal for Miller, who was himself accused of being a communist.

“He was one of the people that was called and accused of being a communist,” Genebach said. “He had to answer to the House Un-American Activities Committee … One of the lines that Proctor utters is, ‘I speak my own sins, I cannot judge another. I have no tongue for it,’ which is something very akin to what Arthur Miller said in front of the commission.”

The character most representing Senator Joseph McCarthy is Deputy Governor Danforth.

“You see his accusations and you see him press for the truth that he wants to hear and not what the actual truth is,” Genebach said. “Lies beget lies, and as it starts to fly forward, you believe the truth that you want to believe — regardless of the facts presented to you. All of a sudden, facts aren’t facts to you anymore because they’re not the facts you want to believe.”

These wild accusations not only have macro political implications, they also expose personal secrets in town, such as John Proctor (Genebach) cheating on his wife Elizabeth (Zampelli).

“John Proctor considers himself an upright, good Christian man … but he’s living with this sin, so he’s a tortured soul,” Genebach said. “The first act is him trying to repair the relationship (and) in the second act, you see the disillusion of his belief in humanity and God. Then he comes back attempting to recover his own goodness and he finds that through Elizabeth.”

“You couldn’t ask for a better arc,” Zampelli said. “Elizabeth (is) not used to communicating about feelings. … They’re not going to couple’s therapy. … Her husband has cheated on her with a 17-year-old in a barn. The girl who she dismissed for sleeping with her husband is now going around accusing people of being a witch and she knows she’s at the top of her list.”

Such marital drama is fascinating to examine through a modern lens, especially when you consider that 14 of the 20 people executed during the Salem Witch Trials were women.

“(Director) Eleanor Holdridge … really wanted to promote the idea of the women in this play and how they interact in this patriarchal, puritanical world,” Genebach said.

While the setting is reflected in traditional costumes, the set evolves toward the present.

“The play starts in Rev. Parris’ house, (where) there’s a bed that’s anachronistic, made of steel instead of wood,” Zampelli said. “In the Proctor house, there’s a metal stove that never would have existed in that time. … Then as the play goes on, especially in Act Two … fluorescent lights come down. … It starts off as a world you kind of don’t recognize, then by the end of it, it’s like, oh wait, this is now, this is here. It starts looking more and more like our world.”

Not only does the set gradually modernize, the stage also moves in other symbolic ways.

“There are these jagged red planks of wood that form the woods at all times, especially with the girls in the beginning,” Zampelli said. “But the red planks literally start encroaching on our space. They start jutting into the actual proscenium area of the stage as you go along.”

Despite these modifications, it’s comforting to lean on the strength of Miller’s original text.

“It’s nice when you know you’re in a good play,” Zampelli said, as Genebach added, “I also think that our production happens to move, even though it does clock in at just under three hours. Arthur Miller calls it Act One, Act Two, Act Three, Act Four. He doesn’t call them scenes because it’s operatic. Every act has its own movement and I think it moves rather quickly.”

Regardless, “The Crucible” remains as relevant and searing as it was in 1953.

“It works in this era just as much as it did 60-70 years ago,” Genebach said. “These episodes seem to crop up in American society over and over again. History is doomed to repeat itself if you forget it, and it seems the American public finds themselves forgetting history more often than not. I don’t know what that speaks to: maybe a lack of education or people’s apathy?”

Total witch hunt, indeed.

Find more details on the theater’s website. Hear our full chat with Genebach and Zampelli below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Chris Genebach & Rachel Zampelli (Jason Fraley)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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