Candlelight flickers with a winking foreboding as the voices in Salem village begin to rise.
With movements reminiscent of a possession scene in a horror film, a figure flips over a hay bale masquerading as a bed to reveal a wooden pallet. She picks up a wooden twig, lights the end with a candle and drops it between the slats of wood.
In an instant, the pallet ignites and a fire begins to blaze as another figure joins her around the flames yelling out the names of the accused.
“I saw Alice Barrow with the Devil!”
“I saw Mr. Barton with the Devil!”
“I saw Goody Hopper with the Devil!”
And so ends the first scene of Wolfbane Productions’ highly-anticipated take on Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.”
A mainstay on many high school readings lists, “The Crucible,” which opens Thursday and runs throughout the month, dramatizes the events of the Salem witch trials.
Using many of the historical figures who lived (and died) during that time as characters, playwright Arthur Miller recreates the tale of mass hysteria that led a Puritan community to accuse more than 200 of its inhabitants of practicing witchcraft.
The trials, which occurred in colonial Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693, led to the executions of 20 men and women.
“This story in particular that Arthur Miller presents to us shows us ... the power of the mind and manipulation,” says actress Sophie Moshofsky, who plays Abigail Williams, one of the initial accusers both in historical events and in the play.
Although Miller set the play in the 1600s, he actually wrote it during the 1950s as a response to McCarthyism.
“It’s often considered one of the best examples of modern allegory because he wrote it at a time when everyone was being accused of being a communist, including him,” says Jack Fellows, who plays protagonist John Proctor in Wolfbane’s production and is himself a descendent of Salem witch trial victim Rebecca Nurse.
The allegory still holds up.
“It is about pressures that lead us to find the other,” says Wolfbane Artistic Director Dustin Williams. “... I was listening to CNN recently, and they mentioned this show because there will always be an other.”
Due to this continuing relevancy, Williams hasn’t adapted the story like he has in the past when the company has staged more traditional productions. But this doesn’t mean Wolfbane’s take on “The Crucible” will feel like the stodgy text that has filled generations of high school students with dread.
“We haven’t done anything [to the script],” says Williams. “We have just lit a fire under it literally and figuratively.”
Like many, Williams recalls reading the play in school with not-so-fond memories.
“I remember in school being so excited to read it because it was about the witches,” he says. “And then we read it, and I was like ... ‘That was a letdown. I wish they made it cool.’”
He read the play again in 2016 during the construction of Wolfbane’s Performing Arts Center (known as the Wolf P.A.C.) in Appomattox. Part of the process involved holding a controlled burn to remove large tree stumps that couldn’t be lifted from the ground.
“We set them in the morning and by the time everybody left, [the fires] were still rolling,” he says.
Knowing he would have to stay to watch the burn, Williams threw some water bottles into an old college backpack and returned to the site. Once there, he discovered three plays he’d left in the bag and forgotten. One of them was “The Crucible.”
He started reading and “literally almost left the fire because I was so scared,” Williams says.
Alone and surrounded by darkness in the middle of the woods, Williams says he finally understood the fear that permeated Salem in Miller’s play.
“To make it a horror story is not a far stretch from what it really felt like,” says Williams.
Wolfbane’s production has attempted to recreate that fear by taking its audience members deeper into the woods surrounding the Wolf P.A.C. than ever before, which can be accessed by hayride, or walking, along a half-mile wooded trail.
“They’ll go into the woods, come out here and be ... literally, on the edge of [the wilderness],” says Williams.
As they break through the tree line, audience members will pass through a gated wall that separates 2019 from Wolfbane’s recreation of 1692.
Sitting around the houses the production team has built to serve as the village of Salem, they might hear the chirp of a cricket or the hoot of an owl.
“Someone could [theoretically] walk up out of these woods and we don’t even know who they are or a creature or an animal,” says Hubbard Farr, who plays the Rev. John Hale, a young minister sent to investigate the accusations of witchcraft. “That fear’s kind of amazing because that’s what these people were living every single day. That’s something you don’t recreate indoors.”
Smoke billows toward the sky, spreading out and silently fading into nothing, just like the hysteria spreading through Salem, silently infecting its inhabitants and poisoning their hearts.
The accused are carried off as Fellows yells at another actor across the flames. Embers spark from the force of his breath, popping against the darkness.
Packed with dense language and a specific historical setting, productions of “The Crucible” have a tendency to feel dated.
Actors who take on these characters sometimes come off as stiff, like oratorical figures in a history textbook, as they pace and pontificate onstage.
Wolfbane’s show avoids this trap with the help of certain design elements.
Since it played such a key part in Williams’ reconnection with “The Crucible,” an actual fire will burn onstage for the majority of the production. The blaze, Moshofsky says, gives the production a kind of kinetic energy that feeds the actors.
Candlelight and the occasional lantern also help illuminate the set because Wolfbane’s village of Salem has been outfitted with very few modern lights — leaving much of the playing space cast in shadow, a stylistic choice that heightens the tension for the audience.
Look straight ahead and the scene is visible through the smoke. Look anywhere else, and the world is darkness.
It gives “that campfire feel, where you kind of end up focused on the fire; there could be ghost stories being told,” says Farr. “It’s entrancing, but walking away from a fire in the darkness, all of your fears could be lurking.”
Whether or not the fear that swept Salem will seep into the audience remains to be seen, but Wolfbane’s choices might just make it easy to get lost in the horror of “The Crucible.”
“I hope people leave wondering what they would do, kind of like when you look at history,” says Moshofsky. “Would I help that person or would I fall into the trap that the public did. Would I be different? It’s hard to know.”