WESTERLY — Westerly High School senior Marissa Berardo, wearing a long black dress, a white apron and a small white cap, stood outside the Babcock Hall auditorium Wednesday night, on a short rehearsal break. Joining her were Brandon Tallardy and Hope Urbonas — fellow members of the high school drama group known as the Stage Dogs — who were also dressed in 17th century New England garb.
The students had been rehearsing scenes from the club's fall production, Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," which opens tonight and runs through Sunday.
Alana Rader and Jon Peacock, co-directors, said "The Crucible," inspired by the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692, is timely and important. Miller wrote it during the McCarthy era — a time when the U.S. government persecuted people accused of being Communists — and it opened on Broadway in 1953.
The play begins with 10-year-old Betty Parris, the daughter of preacher Samuel Parris lying mysteriously motionless, the day after he discovered her outside in the forest, dancing with her girlfriends and Tituba, his slave from Barbados. "Dancing was forbidden back then," said Rader, noting that she and Peacock have added a modern dance scene at the beginning of the play.
"There are a lot of good 'girl' roles in the play, too" she said, one of the reasons the play was chosen.
Speaking demurely, Berardo said, "I play Elizabeth Proctor. She's kind, she's considerate of the people around her, and she's very likable."
"Elizabeth was a pillar of society," said Rader. "She was a good woman ... but she ends up lying for her husband."
"There are a lot of heartbreaking moments in the play," said Rader.
"I play Elizabeth's husband, John Proctor," said Tallardy, who played George Gibbs in last year's production of "Our Town." "He is a very angry person and he loses his temper all the time."
"But it's a lot of fun playing the role," he added with a laugh. "I get to get everything out by playing the angry person role."
Urbonas, who played the role of Emily Webb in "Our Town," and was a dancing fairy in the Colonial Theatre's stellar production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," last summer, said she's enjoying "diving deeper" and tackling the more complex role of Abigail Williams.
"I think she is a character who is misunderstood," said Urbonas. "She's not really a mean girl."
Berardo said the trip the Stage Dogs took to the Salem Witch Museum earlier this fall, along with students from a few history classes, helped the actors get into the spirit of the play. "There were all these wax figures staring down at us," she recalled.
At the museum in Salem, students also learned the basis for the Massachusetts Bay Colony's 17th century legal structure. Under British law, "those who were accused of consorting with the devil were considered felons, having committed a crime against their government," according to the museum's website. "The punishment for such a crime was hanging."
"The Crucible" has become a staple of American theater, and is a popular play on high school stages.
"I think people can relate," said Rader, noting that fear of and not being able to understand "the other" was and is a universal theme. In the case of "The Crucible," she said, the girls may have acted out because they were so restricted.
Peacock added, "I really like that we focus on the women. Here, they have no voice, then through a sequence of events, they get their voice." The play also looks at how lies can spread, he added, "spread in unknown ways."
Other cast members include Owen Muller, who plays Reverend Hale; Alex Labbe, who plays Reverend Parris; Aaryanna Montgomery, as Danforth and Tituba; Aislinn Gibson, Mary Warren; Janna Califf as Nurse and Goody Nurse; Kit Kat Palmer as Giles Corey; Nina McGuire as Mercy Lewis; Kendyll Gaccione as Betty Parris; Malikai Tutt as Judge Hawthorne; Lily Fuller as Willard; Cassie Bertsch as Ruth Putnam, and Georgiana Lau as Salem Girl and featured dancer.
Peacock noted that the production is another step in the creation of Westerly High School’s growing theater program, and will help the program grow into a complete theater pathway sanctioned by the state Department of Education.
Rader said a number of people and organizations have pitched in to help with sets and costumes. Art teacher John Tedeschi and "a group of dads" created the trees, which were wrapped in butcher's paper and spray painted. "The dads were super helpful," she said, "as were members of the visual arts department."
The costumes were borrowed from Trinity Rep, Connecticut College and the Colonial Theatre, Rader added.
Rader said plans are already in the works for the spring play. "It's 'Little Women,' the musical," she said. "The Sutton Foster version."
"We are fundraising now," Rader said, issuing an invitation to community members.
On Friday, Dec. 13, the Stage Dogs will hold a benefit dinner called "Dinner with Dickens," and everyone is invited, she said.
Tickets for the event, which will feature dinner and a reading of "A Christmas Carol," are $40 for adults and $20 for students.
"All proceeds ... 100%, will benefit the Westerly Stage Dogs," said Rader, thanks to Andrew Nathan and Jennifer Gibson of The Cooked Goose.
Rader said there are a few tickets remaining and people interested can call 401-741-7905 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.