Connecting with Their Roles

May 3, 2024
• Actors will channel their ancestry in the retelling of the classic play.

More than 300 years ago, fears of witchcraft shook colonial New England, leading residents to become both “possessed” and obsessed with hunting out its practitioners. Women of the era were often on the receiving end of such accusations, leading to cruel torture and death in an effort to prove their guilt.

The witch trials in Salem inspired playwright Arthur Miller to pen “The Crucible,” a fictionalized retelling of the trials published as an allegory to the Red Scare of the late 1940s and ’50s. And even decades since the play, audiences still resonate with the work, drawing connections between the witch hunts and the current-day.

That motivated the Needham Community Theatre to stage its production of “The Crucible,” which involves local actors who can trace their own lineage back to so-called witches and the trials they endured. The play will run from Friday, May 10 through Sunday, May 19.

Needham resident Becky King’s ancestor is convicted witch Lydia Gilbert, who was tried in Connecticut in the 1650s, nearly 40 years before the Salem witch trials began. The town of Windsor charged Gilbert with causing the accidental death of her neighbor, even though another man was previously found guilty.

That period of time, clearly, was dominated by a “very superstitious bunch,” King said.

Patrick French as John Proctor and Amanda Burke as Abigail Williams in Needham Community Theatre’s “The Crucible.” (Photo by Chris Tess)

Unlike Gilbert, Ann Putnam stood on the opposite side of history, fervently accusing her neighbors of witchcraft “at the heart of the hangings,” King said. The play follows a semi-fictitious version of Ann, who, after several of her newborns pass away, claims her midwives must have practiced witchcraft.

King first played Ann in college and will be reprising her role starting Friday.

“It’s a play that revolves around vengeance and hysteria and what we today call fake news, which is just supposition and ‘guilty until proven innocent,’ really,” King said. “There’s no way to prove innocence.”

Back in 1690s Salem, tavern owner Nathaniel Ingersoll hosted some of the witch hearings in his own pub, where it’s believed some people were accused for the first time. And as his distant relative Kim Marie Nicols tells the story, Ingersoll “might have done a few accusations himself.”

Ingersoll profited well from the trials, as his tavern would flood with patronage.

“The judges, the afflicted girls, all the spectators would just go off into the tavern and drink and eat. Some of the judges stayed there,” Nicols said. “I think my ancestral uncle’s probably a despicable person, despite being called an upstanding member of his community.”

Nicols, who worked as a tour guide in Salem in the 1970s, will channel that history as Rebecca Nurse, the “pious and goodly” elderly woman who is accused by the Putnams of the unnatural deaths of children. Her real-life counterpart was accused and hanged.

This will also be Nicols’ second time in “The Crucible” — she performed with the NCT in the play 22 years ago, the last time the theater group staged it.

This time around, Nicols said she’s approaching her part with fresh eyes, in part thanks to director Marianne Phinney. Miller wrote the part of 71-year-old Rebecca Nurse as “ancient and decrepit,” but Nicols, at 65, takes slight issue with that characterization.

“Because the director is also in her late 60s, she’s having me play this role as being more of a feisty woman who’s opinionated,” she said, “and I really like that.”

Phinney said her own roots date back to Plymouth, where her ancestors settled in the 1600s. But despite her connection to colonial settlers, Phinney said the cast will not dress in the “classic Pilgrim garb” audiences may expect, and historical accuracy is not her priority.

“The Crucible” is a challenging play written by “one of the greatest American playwrights we have,” Phinney said. The story centers on the “court of public opinion” and a society in which “gossip runs riot,” she said.

“This was a town which was very, very dysfunctional,” Phinney said, “not unlike towns today.”

Despite its serious nature, the play does offer some levity and “gallows humor,” as comedy often comes from dark places, actor Patrick French said. He will portray John Proctor, a Salem resident who tries to defend his wife but, in turn, is accused of witchcraft himself.

French, who describes himself as “a history buff,” said he enjoyed reflecting on Massachusetts history, and the play is almost a study of what life was like more than 300 years ago. The stories highlighted in the plot capture the torment many people endured during that period, and French sees the show as an effort to both acknowledge that history and learn from it.

“My heart breaks for those real-life women and girls who were likely just being your average teenage girl and having fun, and because they were doing something that was deemed to not be in compliance with what the male-dominated society dictated, they were deemed to be witches. That still, in many ways, in probably more subtle ways, happens today,” French said. “It’s a good way to shine a light on that and force ourselves to think about how we can continue to at least incrementally improve.”

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