The sound of crickets permeated the large auditorium. Tall structural columns have always been part of El Museo, but then, in the dim light, they became trees. The audience spoke quietly, somehow urged to hush without so much as a word from an actor.

The lights slowly dimmed. We heard singing. The sound of girls laughing and running moved from side to side around us. Finally, a shriek: The song dissolved into screams.

Silent hooded people swept in from all directions, down the aisles, and convened onstage in a tight circle, blocking view of a small bed. They stood for a moment—and, when they dispersed, young Betty Parris (Avonlea Ward) was catatonic under a quilt; her father Rev. Samuel Parris (Steven Berrier) prayed at her feet.

What an opening, right?

Ironweed Productions' The Crucible starts out strong and, for the most part, continues that way. In playwright Arthur Miller's tale of 1692's Salem witch trials, something otherworldly afflicts Massachusetts. It started with Betty, who has fallen mysteriously ill—the work of a witch. Led by the teenager Abigail Williams (Tara Khozein), a cadre of schoolgirls begins accusing townspeople of witchcraft. The town descends into hysteria.

You ain’t seen Tara Khozein (left) quite this mean before. Her Abigail Williams is fierce. Bella Moses’ portrayal of Mary Warren (center) is a revelation, too—keep an eye on that one.
You ain’t seen Tara Khozein (left) quite this mean before. Her Abigail Williams is fierce. Bella Moses’ portrayal of Mary Warren (center) is a revelation, too—keep an eye on that one. | Carrie McCarthy

There is a danger with such a seminal work of wanting to research what scholars have said in answer to your musings. Here, though, I'd urge you to simply watch the show—as I constantly had to urge myself to do throughout the evening. With regards to the possibility of a psychotic break, even my notes read: "Has Abigail lost her shit? — Resist the urge to Google."

This is a play built on words; at the risk of sounding pedestrian, arrive ready to pay close attention. Mercifully, in the large cast, Ironweed's actors all have dynamic appearances and are costumed variously by Talia Pura. Being able to easily tell people apart is no small pleasure in a dialogue-heavy period piece with a cast of 20.

Probably many an actor's dream role, protagonist John Proctor is drama's consummate flawed hero. Proctor, a farmer married to Elizabeth (a noble Kate Kita), had an affair with their teenage servant, Abigail. Abigail then accuses Elizabeth of witchcraft to be rid of her rival. Proctor fights for some semblance of sanity from his contemporaries. (Spoiler alert: He doesn't win.)

These are big shoes to fill; as it were, actor David (Todd) Anderson's portrayal falls short. His Proctor has a measureable swagger, doesn't always know what to do with his hands, has an air of mistrust coupled with seeming insincerity—all aspects of Anderson's style that have worked well for him in previous roles, but here take away from the determination we crave from the character.

While having a fidgety, too-casual Proctor doesn't help to bolster his scenes, this is not to say that the show was unstable as a whole.

Particularly impressive were the schoolgirls—Lauren Amos, Gillian Garcia, Bella Moses and aforementioned Ward—all students at New Mexico School for the Arts. Some may hesitate to shriek so loud in a theater so small, but these actors had no qualms about curdling our blood. Moses' especially touching portrayal of Mary, who tries in vain to speak against Abigail, stood out; a character for whom a viewer's feelings change three or four times during a show speaks to an actor with great command over her audience. Moses is already there, as just a junior in high school.

In a town as small as Santa Fe, it's impossible not to compare actors' previous performances to triangulate their range. Remarkable in that way is Danielle Louise Reddick as Tituba, Parris' Barbadian slave. Reddick's very voice is transformed, here low and sultry, and her Tituba is sly and smart—yet desperate, and in the first act she plays the men in power effortlessly, edging her way into a place of tenuous control. She owes them nothing, and it's glorious.

In a similar way, Hania Stocker is one hell of a Rev. John Hale. Stocker's portrayal this year of three immensely different characters (this, plus O'Brien in 1984 and Ned in The Normal Heart) have all been quite different—and all formidable. Stocker delivers another great performance here as a spiritual expert called in from out of town. Despite deep faith, he doesn't subscribe to the hysterical dogma gripping those around him, and his ability to scream at his fellow actors while somehow still maintaining an air of composure makes him perfect for the role.

Khozein's Abigail has the charisma of a cult leader. Khozein, darling of Santa Fe's scene and a very pleasant human offstage, transforms into a crazy-eyes harlot unnervingly well. Abigail is not without nuance, of course; she thinks she will "scrub the world clean" with her accusations, and her actions are motivated by what she thinks is love, either for God or for Proctor. While at times Khozein plays too childishly giddy, her Abigail elicited strong reactions and showed great ability.

Intricate sound design from Dan Piburn and a beautiful ambiance from Skip Rapoport's lighting should not go unmentioned; nor should director Scott Harrison's ability to assemble and command a large cast that would be unwieldy in less capable hands.

In conclusion: Has Abigail lost her shit?

No, I don't think so. She could be any one of us—and that is humanity at its most terrifying.

The Crucible

7 pm Thursday-Saturday Nov. 2-4; 5 pm Sunday Nov. 5. Through Nov. 12. $14-$25. El Museo Cultural, 555 Camino de la Familia; tickets: ironweedsantafe.com