Raleigh, NC-based Bare Theatre’s Rogue Company, comprised of youthful performers aged 14-21, and supplemented by a couple of Triangle theater veterans, staged a surprisingly strong no-frills version of The Crucible by Arthur Miller Aug. 31-Sept. 3rd at Common Ground Theatre in Durham, NC. Bare Theatre artistic director Carmen-maria Mandley harnessed a veritable Niagara Falls of youthful vigor and used it to power this 1953 masterpiece of Modern Drama, which equated the witch hunt for Communists and Communist sympathizers in government and the military instigated by U.S. Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wisc.) with the infamous Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692, in which 19 men and women were rushed to judgment and hanged and a man was pressed to death.

Director Mandley and physical director Heather J. Hackford shaped the Rogue Company members’ performances with a light by firm hand, injecting a dash of humor here and a dollop of gravitas there. The characters danced onto the stage, in a sort of dramatic minuet performed to a sprightly original score by Vince Conaway, at the start of the show; and they danced through the transitions, which mainly involve rearranging sundry chairs and a couple of plywood benches to represent portions of private homes and, of course, the bleak courtroom where this courtroom drama unfolds and bleaker cells in the downstairs dungeon where the accused and the condemned pass their days in anguish.

Artfully attired in somber period fashions faithfully recreated by costume designer Jeremy Clos, the cast very much looked their parts as bewildered villagers who see a childish prank involving schoolgirls dancing naked around a bonfire in the woods mushroom into incendiary charges of witchcraft and consorting with the devil that pit neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend in an escalating episode of mass hysteria in which a kangaroo court sent the accused—and, in many cases, their defenders — to the gallows on the mere suspicion of unholy conduct.

Guest artist Jesse R. Gephart is suitably creepy as the Uriah Heep-like Rev. Parris, a prissy, unpopular, insufferably officious minister whose teenaged daughter, Betty (Lauren Clos), pretends to be bewitched to get out of punishment for frolicking in the forest with her friends and the Parris family servant Tituba (Lucinda Harris), an African slave from Barbados who entertained the girls by casting spells. Guest artist Rebecca Blum plays the madwoman Sarah Good with similar gusto.

Alex Davis adds a compelling characterization as the Rev. Hale, a famous witch hunter from Beverley whom the Rev. Parris summons to sniff out even the slightest whiff of supernatural influences. The Rev. Hale is no cardboard caricature — indeed, he is a complicated man who becomes deeply disillusioned as it becomes more and more obvious that Salemites are denouncing their fellows to settle personal grudges — and Davis makes his disillusionment and growing distress at the injustices being perpetrated palpable.

Adam Patterson occasionally goes a little over the top in his passionate performance as John Proctor, who publicly confesses his sin of lechery with Abigail Williams (Tara Pozo) in a desperate, last-ditch, and ultimately futile attempt to save his wife, Elizabeth (Claire Wagner), from being hanged as a witch. Tara Pozo is suitably hissable as Elizabeth’s accuser, and Lucinda Harris and Claire Wagner play Tituba and Elizabeth — two increasingly frightened women living in the shadow of the gallows—with near hysteria (Tituba) and admirable calm (Elizabeth).

Andrew Heil injects plenty of personality into his performance as Giles Corey, an irascible villager ultimately pressed to death for fearlessly defending his wife Martha (Jen Harper); and Sam Mohar and Jess Lawrence are scary, indeed, as two odious black-robed judges looking for any excuse to imprison and execute the accused — and anyone who suggests the witchcraft trial’s verdicts are foreordained.

Nick Fields and Matt Fields provide some comic relief as officials of the court, and Brie Tyburski is good as Mary Warren, a recanting witness who bends to unbearable pressure and recants her recantation.

Although some performances lacked polish, none lacked verve. Bare Theatre’s Rogue Company’s presentation of The Crucible, which played to packed houses throughout its four-day run, once again proves that there is a sizable local audience eager and willing to turn out for serious plays that embrace timely topics.

Bare Theatre: http://www.baretheatre.org/. Common Ground Theatre: http://www.cgtheatre.com/. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=2847. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050997/. Arthur Miller Society: http://www.ibiblio.org/miller/. Study Guide: http://www.ibiblio.org/miller/crucibleteachnotes.html. Salem Witchcraft Trials: http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/SALEM.HTM. Salem Witch Museum: http://www.salemwitchmuseum.com/ [inactive 2/09].