Cars line the dirt road leading to the Idaho Shakespeare Festival's full parking lot. Last-minute arrivals shuffle through the stone-lined entrance, juggling picnic baskets and tattered blankets.
It's opening night for Arthur Miller's The Crucible and there are few empty seats, missing teeth in the smile that wraps around the tiered stage. My date and I make our way to the grass hillside seating area and unfurl our blanket on the sloping lawn.
After a few minutes, Joe Conley Golden and Tom Willmorth, the two jokers behind the Fool Squad, wrap up their pre-show performance and exit the stage from The Greenshow. Charlie Fee, the festival's producing artistic director, clears his throat and bellows into the hidden floor microphones. He issues a few precautionary warnings about keeping feet and wine out of the aisles, then painstakingly thanks all of the festival's many sponsors and opens the stage for ISF's first performance of a Miller play in its 32-year tenure.
Suddenly, a shuffle of boots and a growing murmur are heard from the amphitheater's upper walkways. A gaggle of white bonnet-clad girls and stern-faced, earth-toned townsfolk scramble down the stairs through the audience. The stage setting is extremely minimalist, with a bleached plywood structure that looms like the frame of a house in an Ikea subdivision. Center stage, there's a small stool and a wooden bed, where a young girl lies, supine. This barren setting provides the perfect blank canvas for a play about the bleak lives of Puritan villagers in 1692 Salem, Mass.
The townspeople gather around the bed of 10-year-old, Betty Parris whom they believe to be suffering from witchcraft. Parris' father, the town's reverend, paces around the room and recounts the previous evening's events. He describes seeing his daughter, his niece Abigail Williams, his slave Tituba and a few other young women dancing around a fire in the woods and chanting spells. The Rev. Parris is more concerned with what the town will think of him than the condition of his ailing daughter.
As more of the girls involved in the alleged witchery arrive in Parris' room, they begin to shift blame and publicly accuse innocent citizens of consorting with the devil in an attempt to preserve their good names. It is obvious that their finger-pointing only uses the cloak of piousness to dredge up the town's petty economic and social grievances.
And so begins Act I of Miller's classic political indictment of the McCarthy-era red-baiting. Though The Crucible has maintained its relevance through the years, and been dog-eared by most high school students, it has a particular significance when applied to America's current War on Terrorism. With fear in our eyes, we allowed a government-run terrorist witch hunt that resulted in the incarceration of 770 people, without charge, in Guantanamo Bay. Recently, the Supreme Court ruled in Boumediene v. Bush that the remaining prisoners now have the right to challenge their detention. Unfortunately, in Miller's theocratic New England, those thrown in jail for witchery had only two options: confess or hang.
As the play continues into Act II, farmer John Proctor emerges as the town's voice of reason. He condemns the girls as liars, saying, "We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are dangling the keys and vengeance writes the law."
Though Proctor, played by Andrew May, admits to lechery with Abigail Williams (Sara M. Bruner), one of the town's finger-pointing young women, his character comes across as earnest and pitiable. May speaks with a slight lilting Irish accent that pleads forgiveness from his wide-eyed wife, Elizabeth Proctor (Laura Perrotta). In the looming light of dawn, on the day John Proctor will hang, he and pregnant Elizabeth deliver the evening's most captivating scene. The lights dim and the play is over.
The actors re-emerge to hearty applause. In the audience, there is a general shuffle as people empty their wine glasses and the snap the lids back on Tupperware containers. Lawn chairs are creaked closed and blankets are shaken off and folded.
The couple sitting next to us were volunteering for the night with event sponsor, The Idaho Statesman. They say positive things about the acting and directing of The Crucible, but are generally unmoved by the play's somber, dramatic plot.
"We're volunteering tonight, so that's why we're here. We always come to the shows, but this play, really, doesn't keep you awake," notes the woman. "They did a great job, it's just a sleeper."
And though my date and I thoroughly enjoy our first trek to the riverside amphitheater, we agree with the couple that the play, itself, was a little dry. Though selecting The Crucible in an election year seems like a timely political statement, I couldn't help being drawn back to the wandering eyes and pen-smudged desks of my high school English class. My date and I gather the remnants of our picnic and begin to talk about the next ISF play we'll see, the more light-hearted All's Well That Ends Well.
Idaho Shakespeare Festival, 5657 Warm Springs Ave. The Crucible runs through Wed., July 23. For more information on seating and tickets visit idahoshakespeare.org.