Six actors in Puritan clothing stand onstage in front of a wooden frame house. The man in the middle is gesticulating. Bare tree branches are visible behind them. Three other actors are seated on wooden chairs on the left side of the photo
The ensemble of The Crucible at Invictus Theatre Credit: Through Line Studios

The Puritans in New England lived fearful, close-minded, claustrophobic lives. Disdainful of all other Christian sects (especially Catholics and Quakers) and of the Native Americans who they were certain worshipped Satan, they were terrified they would burn in Hell forever if they strayed from the tiny path their narrow-minded, authoritarian religious leaders set out for them. 

The beauty of the Invictus production of The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s 1953 dramatic play about one of the darkest chapters in Puritan American history, is how well it captures their insular psychological and spiritual mindset. 

The Crucible
Through 6/11: Mon and Thu-Sat 7 PM, Sun 3 PM, Reginald Vaughn Theater, 1106 W. Thorndale,, $35 ($30 students/seniors)

Kevin Rolfs’s set design takes full advantage of the intimate Invictus storefront space. The audience is seated like observers in a trial along one wall. The performers who are not presently in a scene sit in uncomfortable, high-back chairs along stage left and right, looking alternately like jurors or reluctant witnesses about to be called. The result is that we, the audience, don’t just watch the terrifying story unfold. We are locked in a room with it. (Not literally—surely that would violate fire codes.)

Rolfs’s set also builds upon the claustrophobia that is central to Miller’s play. Written as a response to another time when the walls seemed to be closing in on the American spirit—the McCarthy era—The Crucible again and again shows a people penned in by fear, superstition, specious evidence, and the bullying of authorities who set up a system that guaranteed people would accuse others. Those accused of being a witch were assumed to be guilty (because only a witch would be accused of being a witch) and were hanged if they maintained their innocence; the only way to save their skin was to admit to being a witch and name others in their coven.

This excerpt from the transcript of the interrogation of Bridget Bishop (later executed) by Judge John Hathorne shows how trapped the accused could be by pretzel logic. 

Bishop: I know nothing. . . . I am innocent. . . . I know not what a witch is.

Judge Hathorne: How do you know then that you are not a witch?

Bishop: I do not know what you say.

Judge Hathorne: How can you know, you are no witch, and yet not know what a witch is?

The beauty of this production, directed by Charles Askenaizer, is how well it balances the intensity of Miller’s historical drama and the intimacy of the performing space. Lesser actors might be drawn into one of two traps—being too low-key or going over the top. Some of the performances in the show are rough, but most find their footing and deliver performances with the right balance of intensity and understated power. Mark Pracht in the lead role of John Proctor is riveting. From the moment he enters the story, we care about him and his fate.  Similarly, Michaela Voit succeeds in communicating the essential malevolence of her character, the manipulative Abigail Williams, without making her into a melodrama villain. Frank Nall deserves note for how gracefully he follows the twisting arc of Giles Corey, who enters the play as a comic character (he seems to take a mischievous delight in suing his neighbors) and leaves it as a hero and martyr to integrity.

One could spend another 500 words praising the details of the production. But truly this is one of those shows where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This is a production that grabs an audience in the first seconds, pulls us in, and doesn’t let go until the final lights go out.