‘The Crucible,” says director Eric Tucker, is a masterful play that rises above family drama to talk about life and community and the darkness that lurks underneath.
Tucker and his Bedlam theater company make their much-anticipated fourth return to Central Square Theatre Sept. 12-Oct. 13, after dazzling audiences with “Hamlet”/“St. Joan,” “Twelfth Night”/“What You Will,” and most recently, “Pygmalion.”
Although Arthur Miller’s allegory is a high school staple, Tucker says his goal is always to strip down a play to its essentials to remember why it became a classic.
“Too often,” he says, “we think we know the play, or the characters, or the story, and we take shortcuts. What makes this play one of the best of the 20th century is the complexity of these characters. They aren’t simply good or evil, they are flawed. That mob mentality that takes over is really scary, but it’s also human nature.”
“The Crucible” is set in Salem in 1692 after a group of young women are discovered dancing naked in the forest. Their determination to protect their reputations unleashes a torrent of lies and accusations, feeding fears that tear a community apart. Written during the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s, Miller’s play drew parallels between McCarthy-era hysteria over communism with the fear that led to the Salem witch trials.
“John Proctor is often seen as the play’s hero,” says Tucker, “because he refuses to confess to something he didn’t do just to escape punishment. But when we read through the script, one of the young actresses said, ‘Hold on a minute, he abused a teenage girl. And hey, he’s got huge anger management issues.’ ”
At the same time, Tucker says, Abigail, the young woman who has had an affair with Proctor, is often pegged as a manipulative siren. “But girls are the lowest on Salem’s social totem pole. Suddenly, she becomes the town’s most powerful figure and for a moment, she enjoys it.
“We can’t judge them,” he says. “We need to understand them.”
Bedlam’s previous productions with the Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railway Theater involved just a handful of actors. But for “The Crucible,” the cast numbers 13.
“You need a crowd to see the mob mentality,” Tucker says. “There’s an ecstatic feeling that spreads through a group when people gang up on someone and others are glad it’s not them. We need enough faces to be able to clock that.”
Nora Theatre artistic director Lee Mikeska Gardner says Tucker’s approach to the play is fresh without updating it, and it responds to the current climate.
“The play is about a community that is struggling,” she says. “They are fearful and angry and are goaded by leadership to start pointing fingers. People start accusing each other of everything.”
After the Cambridge run, Bedlam will open “The Crucible” in New York at the Connelly Theatre Nov. 8-Dec. 29.
The stories Mount Auburn can tell
Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge encompasses 170 acres that serve as a botanical garden, a wildlife sanctuary, a historic site, and a burial ground. The cemetery has always attracted a wide array of visitors and has offered public programs for many years; in 2014 it established an artist-in-residence program.
“It’s a different way for people to experience this beautiful place,” says Jenny Gilbert, Mount Auburn’s director of institutional advancement.
The first year’s artist-in-residence was filmmaker Roberto Mighty, followed by composer and musician Mary Bichner. This year, it’s playwright Patrick Gabridge, who has created two sets of short plays that draw on the site and the people who are buried there.
“The America Plays,” which run Sept. 12-22 at various locations throughout the cemetery, follow last spring’s “The Nature Plays.” (Tickets $30-$35, www.mountauburn.org/the-america-plays.)
“These five short plays focus on identity and legacy at a time in our history when America was just coming into its own,” says director Courtney O’Connor.
The characters featured in the plays include Mount Auburn Cemetery founder Jacob Bigelow, as well as Harriot Kezia Hunt, an early female physician who was denied admission to Harvard Medical School by Bigelow. They also include sculptor and Watertown native Harriet Hosmer, a friend of Hunt’s; M. Edmonia Lewis, who was commissioned to sculpt Hunt’s grave monument; and actress Charlotte Cushman, who was friendly with both Hosmer and Lewis.
In addition to the plays that highlight connections between people in the cemetery, the fifth play features an Armenian family, forced to leave their homeland because of the genocide in the early 20th century. Generations later, the family still struggles with its impact on their own identity and place in the world.
“The characters are ghosts, but these aren’t ghost stories,” O’Connor says. “The space may be devoted to the dead, but the plays are about life.”
‘The Stone’ returns — in English
After a previous production in Russian, Arlekin Players Theatre remounts its haunting production of “The Stone,” by Marius von Mayenburg, entirely in English, Sept. 13-29 at its upstairs theater space in Needham. The play follows a series of owners of a house in Dresden, Germany, and the lies the home conceals. With a set design by David R. Gammons and evocative staging by director Igor Golyak, “The Stone” delivers a haunting look at the cost of buried memories. (Tickets $45-$65, www.arlekinplayers.com.)
Presented by the Nora Theatre Company in association with Bedlam at Central Square Theater, Cambridge, Sept. 12-Oct. 13. Tickets $16-$69, 617-576-9278, www.centralsquaretheater.org