By Tina Alvey
Halloween is just around the corner, and children must decide which costume will be scarier — a broom-toting witch in a pointy hat or a sheet-draped ghost?
It’s the perfect time for Greenbrier Valley Theatre to take audiences back to an era when witches, ghosts and their ilk were not fodder for children’s games but seen as evil creatures bent on mischief — in some cases, criminals ripe for hanging.
Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” depicts a dark time in the history of the New World, a time when superstition, not science, ruled the day. No one was safe from accusations of practicing witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, and the commonwealth’s courts operated under the presumption that a defendant was guilty until proven innocent.
The zealotry, suspicion and baseless accusations which were often made by accusers with something to gain that marked 17th century Salem have cropped up again and again in human history, in American history.
Perhaps the most revealing example of a modern-day “witch hunt” is the hysteria spawned by Senator Joe McCarthy’s investigation into people suspected of having communist ties in the 1950s. In fact, it was the neighbor-turning-on-neighbor aspect of McCarthyism that inspired Miller to write “The Crucible.”
Those issues and more will be discussed in classrooms all around the local region, thanks to GVT’s matinee educational performances of “The Crucible.”
According to the theatre’s director of education, Courtney Susman, study guides are being provided to schools that have sent busloads of students to see the play.
“We’re having nine performances for schools,” Susman noted.
Ranging in size up to 120 students, the 12 school groups making educational field trips to GVT for the special performances are from as far away as Hurricane and as close as Greenbrier East and Greenbrier West high schools.
“More than half of Raleigh County’s high school students will be attending a performance by the time we’re done,” Susman said.
Turning in a heart-wrenching portrayal in the pivotal role of Mary Warren in “The Crucible,” Susman explained that she must “stay in the performance” rather than drawing on personal experiences to play the anguished young woman who betrays her benefactor in a desperate bid to save her own life.
Among the stars in the cast is Joseph E. Murray, whose John Proctor travels a path of self-realization that neatly parallels the stages of grief — from denial to anger to bargaining and, finally, acceptance.
A talented actor with a thriving film, television and stage career in Los Angeles, Murray explained his eagerness to travel all the way to Lewisburg to appear in this production.
“I would walk from Los Angeles to do this play at this theater,” he said. “It’s a master work and a wonderful role, and the artistic and creative team at this theater is everything that’s right in the American theater today.”
In the liner notes presented in the GVT program for “The Crucible,” Murray is described as an actor who “never says ‘no’ to Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Stephen Spielberg, Shakespeare or (GVT artistic director) Cathey Sawyer.”
On a more serious note, Murray said, “It’s an overwhelming responsibility to be trusted with one of the crown jewels of the American theater.”
Cast mate Ashley Shade concurred with Murray, saying, “Not only is it a masterpiece, but to have the opportunity to make it come alive, to make it important for every audience, is a privilege.”
Shade brings a deft touch to her portrayal of Abigail, a mixture of starry-eyed teenager and cunning home-wrecker, the “woman scorned” who orchestrates her lover’s downfall.
Buses from Greenbrier West High School deposited 120 students at the theatre for a Tuesday morning matinee performance of “The Crucible,” and Principal Randy Auvil said he appreciates the opportunity the experience affords his students.
“It’s cultural and entertaining — a good collaborative effort,” Auvil said.
GWHS English teacher Clifford Burdette noted that the school has made the visit to GVT an annual event over the past 5 or 6 years. He said it provides a chance to explore societal issues with students, as well as promoting the obvious tie-ins to the school’s literature curriculum.
“It ties into the social, political and cultural implications of the themes being explored,” Burdette said of “The Crucible,” adding that the students will learn about the McCarthy era within that same framework.
The actors take the educational responsibility to heart as well.
“Miller is warning us to beware absolute moral certainty,” Murray explained. “The biggest challenge a high school student faces today is standing against the crowd. If we give one kid the opportunity to do that, the whole trip was worth it.”
Shade added, “It’s always about the audience. If we can make one person think something different or look at a situation in a different way, that’s why we’re up there on stage.”
Greenbrier Valley Theatre’s production of “The Crucible” continues with performances at 7:30 p.m. tonight and Saturday, as well as on Oct. 19 and 20. For reservations or more information, call 304-645-3838 or visit www.gvtheatre.org.
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