What sort of impact can "The Crucible," a play written 50 years ago about a historical event that happened more than 300 years ago, have on today's audience?
"One of the big things about 'The Crucible' is that it's such a famous play, but once you get into it, it's very immediate," said Mike Manfred of Altoona. "The emotions are very strong, but there's also that element of political intrigue."
Manfred is directing Altoona Community Theatre's "The Crucible," which opens at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Mishler Theatre in downtown Altoona. The show will also be presented at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 14 and 15 and 2 p.m. Feb. 16.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
John Proctor (Jorden Heitkamp) and Abigail Williams (Alice Oswald) share a tender moment before their affair ends.
"The Crucible" is playwright Arthur Miller's 1953 play dramatizing the Salem Witch Trials. The film's initial Broadway run earned a Tony for best play.
During the Salem, Mass., trials of 1692 and 1693, young girls - led by Abigail Williams and her cousin, Betty Parris, the town reverend's daughter - began accusing Salem residents of witchcraft. Williams, eager to get even with farmer John Proctor, her former lover, eventually accused his wife, Elizabeth Proctor, of witchcraft.
When Proctor stepped up to defend his wife and cast doubt on the girls' accusations, the girls accused him of witchcraft, as well. Much of the show's action - in the town and in a third act set in a courtroom - comes from the conflict between the accusing girls, those accused and the rest of the town's residents.
If you go
What: "The Crucible," presented by Altoona Community Theatre
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 14 and Feb. 15 and 2 p.m. Feb. 16
Where: Mishler Theatre, Altoona
Tickets: $13 to $20, available at the theater box office and online at www.mishlertheatre.org
"I've seen the show several times, but several directors don't get the point of the show," Manfred said. "It's not about witchcraft; it's about the town and the relationships. ... We're pushing some of the relationships to the breaking point, to see how far we can go."
The play's central relationship is the one between John Proctor (played by Jorden Heitkamp) and Abigail, the 17-year-old former maid of the Proctor family. Abigail was fired by Elizabeth Proctor when her husband's affair with the servant was discovered. It is the girl's attempt to perform "love spells" with her friends that starts rumors of witchcraft in Salem.
Abigail is a complex role, tackled in this production by Alice Oswald, 21, of Altoona. Oswald is making her first appearance in a lead role for ACT after working in a primarily backstage role in the past.
The Penn State Altoona student was drawn to what she calls a "very manipulative" and "very strong" character.
"I wouldn't necessarily say that I can relate to her... but I think anyone at that age can relate to lying to get out of trouble," Oswald said.
Playing the show's obvious villain in such a heavy drama can be difficult, though, she said.
"Even though she's kind of a difficult character - and the show is kind of dark - the reward of giving a good show is worth it," she said. "I have a good cast to - even if I'm down and in a dark place - I have a great cast to pull me out of it.
"I think to an extent it can be difficult to live in that kind of moment."
"It's a difficult show, in that the emotions are high almost the whole time throughout the show," he said. "To make sure you're building that and not plateauing, is really difficult."
Adding to the drama is the element of witchcraft, always one of the play's most controversial aspects.
"The show itself, the emotions these people feel, it's really the same as any other courtroom drama," Manfred said. "But when you add in the witchcraft, it adds a whole new dimension.
"One of the reasons I wanted to do the show is because it was challenging. I said to the crew when we began, 'This will probably be the most challenging show any of us has ever done.'"
Helping the task is a large cast - 21 people - who are all passionate about the show. The show also includes several ACT rookies, Manfred said.
"They're all doing a great job," he explained. "It's really an ensemble show. There's really only a few moments that are just one character talking to another character."
Manfred is excited about how the play will be seen in this area.
"There's a strong interest in the community about it," he said. "And I'm excited about it. I like that ACT is still doing controversial works. ... It says a lot about the artistic integrity of our company that we're willing to do works like this."
Oswald also thinks the audience will enjoy the production, despite its subject matter.
"I'm hoping that they're going to be somewhat shocked and maybe at times a little taken aback, but in the end I hope that they're going to learn things," she said. "We're not doing the show purely for shock value."
Mirror Staff Writer Keith Frederick is at 946-7466.