Emma Bishop as Abigail (center) leads the other teenage girls of Salem to hysteria in "The Crucible," being presented by Midcoast Actors' Studio at the Crosby Center. Credit: Leah Bannister | Midcoast Actors' Studio

Midcoast Actors’ Studio’s production of “The Crucible” is raw, real and relevant.

Director Jason Bannister said in his program note that he chose the play because “it’s a tragic reminder of the power of fear mongering, hysteria and the art of persuasion.”

No one could have predicted the show would open the weekend a gunman, reportedly fueled by online fearmongering, hysteria and persuasion, would massacre 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue. That event made the play’s message modern and immediate.

Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” is a cautionary tale first performed in 1953. On its surface, it is a story about how the antics of teenage girls in 17th century Salem, Massachusetts, grew into a frenzy that caused hundreds of men and women to be accused of being involved in witchcraft.

Miller wrote the play as an allegory for McCarthyism, a time after World War II, when the government persecuted Americans who had been members of the Communist Party. Miller himself was found in contempt of Congress when he refused to give the House Committee on Un-American Activities the names of others who had attended party meetings.

Credit: Leah Bannister | Midcoast Actors' Studio

Few community theater companies could mount a production of “The Crucible” as well executed as Midcoast has done. The play requires a large cast that ranges in age from teenagers to septuagenarians. It also is longer than today’s average play, so pacing is critical to keep the attention of an audience.

The company and the designers beautifully execute Bannister’s vision for the show. He wanted the characters to be “literally removing parts of their surroundings, ripping away at the fabric of the community,” according to the program notes.

Set designer John Bielenberg and Bannister made sections of horizontal slats removable from the vertical boards that stand like pillars on stage. At key decision points in the story, sections of the set are removed, the way clapboards might be removed from a crumbling house. By the end of the play, little is left to protect the characters from the elements of nature or society.

Nathan Roach, well known for his performances with Midcoast and Ten Bucks Theatre Company in Bangor, plays John Proctor, the man who must decide whether to lie and live or keep his good name and die. Roach’s tall, lanky physique and deep voice make him a natural choice for the role, but he has never been an actor to do as deep a dive into character he does in this production.

But Roach inhabits Proctor as he has no one else. The actor disappears into the passionate Proctor wracked with guilt over his affair with the teenaged Abigail and grief for the loss of his wife Elizabeth’s affection.

In his scenes with Abigail, played by Emma Bishop, Proctor’s lust rises off Roach like a heat wave. The audience can almost see it. But it is in the final moments of “The Crucible” that the actor truly shines. Roach makes Proctor’s decision gut wrenching, heartbreaking and unforgettable.

Credit: Jason Bannster | Midcoast Actors' Studio

As Elizabeth Proctor, Leah Bannister wears the woman’s anguish over her husband’s betrayal as if it were her apron. The actress gives a nuanced and layered performance but is especially good at chilling the heat coming off Roach with merely a glance. In her final scenes with him, Bannister shows how well Elizabeth knows her husband. She makes those moments so intimate, theatergoers feel as if they are intruding.

Emma Bishop’s performance lacks the depth Roach and Bannister give the Proctors. Bishop does not bring Abigail’s defiance to the surface often enough nor is her ability to manipulate the other girls portrayed as blatantly as it should be. The actress gives subtlety to the one character in the play who should be guileless.

Standout performers in “The Crucible’ by supporting players include Erin Hayes as Mary Warren, Cory Burns as the Rev. Samuel Parris, Eric Sanders as Thomas Putnam, Bryan Hayes as the Rev. John Hale and Alison Cox as Rebecca Nurse. Jason Bannister, who replaced an ailing actor in the final week of rehearsal, gives a commanding performance as Deputy Gov. Danforth, the man who condemns many to death for witchcraft.

One of the technical elements that makes this production so moving is the sound, designed by Jay Rosenberg and the director. The combination of classical and modern music underscores the play’s emotional depth. Yet, Bannister also uses silence to great effect, especially during the scenes between the Proctors.

Midcoast’s production, combined with tragic current events, have made Miller’s message more than timely. It is now urgent that his warning be heard anew and headed. “The Crucible” in Belfast is theater at its finest in nearly every way. It should not be missed.

“The Crucible” will be performed at 7:30 p.m Thursday through Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Crosby Center, 96 Church St., Belfast. For more information, call 207-370-7592 or visit midcoastactors.org.

Editor’s note: Judy Harrison portrayed Abigail in a 1969 production of “The Crucible” in Florissant, Missouri.

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