These are the things that live in the shadows of our lives, lurking and waiting to spring forth whenever the ugly side of human nature allows.
Most everyone who passed through a high-school English class is familiar with the story -- but I admit my small, rural school didn't teach it. Therefore, I missed out on reading the powerful words of Arthur Miller as he points an angry finger at those in authority who become so fixated on rooting out the guilty they fall prey to a witch hunt that also condemns the blameless.
In the case of "The Crucible," the setting is an actual witch hunt -- the famous inquisition of 1692-93 in Salem, Mass., when accusations of black magic led to the deaths of more than 20 people, most by hanging. Miller wrote the play in the 1950s, under the cloud of the U.S. government's attempt to identify members of the Communist Party, and he gave his characters timeless problems: a rocky marriage, a regretted affair, teenage rebellion.
Theatre Downtown's production, directed by Frank Hilgenberg, cleverly mixes the Puritan era with a sense of timelessness. Though the costumes are rooted in the story's time period, the set by Fran Hilgenberg is a simple backdrop of white screens with wooden beams in the shape of a cross, evoking a house or church of anytime.
Behind the screens, actors in silhouette heighten the play's malice: In the opening moment, when Salem's impressionably girls are seen there, dancing wildly in the woods; or, later, when a fear-mongering mob is murmuring about witchcraft outside a stricken girl's bedroom.
Also enhancing the play's mood: Piano music from Spencer Crosswell. Never intrusive, the high-pitched jangly notes underscore the action in pivotal moments, propelling the characters.
As John Proctor, Jamie B. Cline maintains a pleasing stoicism as the hysteria around him rises, holding his posture so tensely you can sense the internal battle he's fighting with his guilt. As his wife Elizabeth, Kristin Collins starts out eyes downcast, in the background, serving him supper. But Collins' beautifully expressive face shows us Elizabeth's story, as she stands tall, resigns herself to her arrest, begs her husband to forgive himself and quietly proud, accepts his final decision.
As the principal girls, Abigail Williams and Mary Warren, actresses Hilty Bowen and Sarah Andrew put clear personalities behind their characters' actions.
Bowen's Abigail is the quintessential bored teen, doing something "just cuz," whether it's seducing her employer or telling another lie, consequences be damned. Her eyes flash when she thinks of another tale to spin, and her lips curl in triumph when the other girls fall under her spell.
Meanwhile, Andrew's Mary just wants to be noticed, evident from the first time she proclaims happily she's an "official of the court," to the way she lets Proctor drag her before the inquisition.
Others in smaller roles leave vivid impressions, too: Tim Bass puts just the right swagger and self-assuredness in the Rev. Hale -- then watch his chin quiver in fear and dismay as his beliefs fall apart. John Kelly is charmingly comical as Giles Corey, whose true dignity and strength of character later emerge; and Skye Aubrey, as plain-spoken Rebecca Nurse, doesn't need some stagey stuff with a cane to demonstrate the wisdom that comes with age. It's written in her unshakably rich voice and in her shrewd eyes.
In the show's final scene done in silhouette, the eye is drawn to the horror of John Proctor and Rebecca Nurse meeting their fates. But it's in the tear-stained face of Elizabeth where the tragedy hits home.
See for yourself
* What: 'The Crucible,' drama by Arthur Miller
* Where: Theatre Downtown, 2113 N. Orange Ave., Orlando
* When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 3; runs through Oct. 9
* Tickets: $18 adults; $15 students and seniors
* Call: 407-841-0083
* Online: theatredowntown.net