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’It were sport, Uncle,” Abigail Williams tells the Reverend Parris three pages into The Crucible. Arthur Miller took the quotation from the testimony of Mary Warren, a servant of John Proctor. Accused of witchcraft in 1692, she swore, “It were only sport in the beginning…but then the whole world cried spirits.”

The Salem Witch Trials began, most historians believe, as child’s play. Early in 1692, young women from 11 to 20 conjured spirits, in the woods at midnight, to discover who their husbands might be. Hysteria sprang from a search for love. By September, townspeople squashed a man to death with stones and hung 19 alleged witches and wizards — and two dogs.

Proctor says there’s no such thing as witchcraft. At Proctor’s trial, Judge Danforth understands the shifty nature of the crime. Ordinary offenses have witnesses, he says, evidence pro or con; but witchcraft is an “invisible” crime that only the witch and the victim witness. What this logic misses: anyone can be accused of witchcraft and for the most mundane of personal slights.

In one instance, a man coveted another’s property. Ergo, Satan owned his soul.

“Vengeance,” shouts John Proctor, soon to be hanged. “We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!”

Judge Danforth, for whom the law has no spirit, declares that “we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world.”

The Crucible erupted with relevance when it opened in 1953. The Witch Trials mirrored the McCarthy Hearings’ purge of suspected Communists. The play’s feeding frenzy — if you aren’t with us, you’ll burn in hell — is at least as relevant today, if not more. Proctor asks a question that resonates through the last decade like a tuning fork (where anyone demanding national health care must be a “socialist” and anyone seen reading the Koran might be a terrorist): “Is the accuser always holy now?”

The play also asks: In times of moral arrogance — recall Hitler’s Germany, when children turned in their parents for who knows what imagined wrongs — what recourse does an individual have? For John Proctor, it means keeping his “good name.” In the end, the playwright gives him the ultimate Catch-22: confess and live; don’t, keep your good name and hang.

Stagings of The Crucible are rare because it requires a huge cast, and it probes unquestioned beliefs. The Intrepid Shakespeare Company/Moxie Theatre coproduction has 19 actors: one, it turns out, for each person hung at Salem. The opening night was an uneven mix of stiff blockings and deliveries and genuine drama. Things have probably settled in by now, however, and the play is definitely a must-see.

Designer Jannifer Mah clothed the actors appropriately, if a mite color-coded, for the period: anyone associated with sex has a swatch of red somewhere. Jennifer Brawn Gittings’s spare set accommodates the large group gatherings (though why the directors only use half the stage for the courtroom scene is a puzzle).

Sean Cox’s outstanding performance as John Proctor absolves the production’s sins. In one of his most telling moves, when young Mary Warren (an intense Kelly Iverson, never better) angers him, Proctor raises an open hand, as if to strike her. Even though he swears he isn’t holy, most readings of Proctor sidle toward sainthood. Cox complicates his portrait with conflicts from without and within and with that raised hand, which puts us back in 17th-century Salem when even “good” men felt free to hit women (that Proctor doesn’t reveals his character more than his words).

Miller said if he could rewrite The Crucible, he’d make Judge Danforth — who conducts the trial with a God-versus-evil approach, he being the Almighty — even more villainous. Jim Chovick had the judge’s fire-breathing, univocal rectitude down pat. Too many verbal hesitations, as if he weren’t quite off-book, however, marred his scenes.

An 11-year-old, Abigail Williams, incited the mania at Salem. The playwright upped Abigail’s age to 17. Callie Prendville made her far too restrained. Putting an 11-year-old’s mercurial energy into the teenager might help. (Miller may have changed the ages of Proctor and Abigail to make them more believable, or less strange: in 1692, John Proctor was 60.)

Moxie standbys Lisel Gorrell-Getz and Rhona Gold do credible work as Proctor’s “cold” wife Elizabeth and “pious” Rebecca Nurse. As does Jon Sachs as the appropriately stuffy Reverend Paris.

In many ways Reverend John Hale is the play’s most interesting character. Armed with six heavy books — which explain, he says, the “invisible” world — Hale begins the play with absolute assurance and ends, emotionally shredded, by warning Proctor to “cleave to no faith when faith brings blood.” Justin Lang adds too many comic quirks to an otherwise fine effort.

Miller said the rise of McCarthyism wasn’t his only inspiration. “It was that…the Far Right was capable of creating not only a terror, but a new subjective reality, a veritable mystique…gradually assuming even a holy resonance…. It was as though the whole country had been born anew, without a memory even of certain elemental decencies which a year or two earlier no one would have imagined could be altered, let alone forgotten.” ■

The Crucible, by Arthur Miller
Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard, College Area
Codirected by Jennifer Eve Thorn and Christy Yael; cast: Sean Cox, Lisel Gorrell-Getz, Jim Chovick, Jon Sachs, Justin Lang, Molly O’Meara, David
Playing through December, Thursday through Saturday at 8:00

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