Witch trials and New England history take the stage Thursday night at Beverly’s Larcom Theatre in the first of a 10-show run for “Saltonstall’s Trial.”
The drama, written by Michael Cormier, of Atkinson, New Hampshire, and Myriam Cyr, of Beverly, revolves around a lone judge’s decision to remove himself from the fear-stoked proceedings that unfolded in Essex County starting in 1692.
Finger-pointing ultimately led to 200 people being accused of witchcraft. Twenty people were executed, 14 women and six men. At least five people who stood accused of witchcraft died in jail.
A large cast, professional actors among them, perform the history play.
The drama speaks to the past — and present.
“The phrase ‘witch hunt’ is everywhere you look these days,” said Cyr, also the play’s director. “This play explains exactly what it means, the power of the phrase, and where it should be applied.”
The central character, Judge Nathanial Saltonstall, based on a real person, was one of the original nine judges appointed to preside over the special court assembled in 1692 to hear the Salem witch cases.
The judges were wealthy and powerful individuals from the upper crust of the colony, a majority of them Harvard-educated and all of them on the Governor’s Council, Cormier said.
The well-bred, Harvard-educated Saltonstall married Elizabeth Ward, a daughter of the Rev. John Ward, of Haverhill.
Saltonstall bowed out of the trials early on. The historical record does not indicate why he left.
The play imagines his motivation, and his predicament builds dramatic tension.
Along the way, the Saltonstall character is an entry point for audiences to wonder how they might have acted had they been in his boots.
“Saltonstall’s Trial” is about a family that struggles to do the right thing and finds a way to do so in the face of adversity, Cormier said.
The family lived on what was then the frontier, Haverhill, where Saltonstall heard small claims and petty crime cases.
Cormier said that he wants audiences “to stop and think about how society breaks down and how society can turn into a monster. Society as Jekyll and Hyde.”
Cormier and Cyr debuted their drama as a workshop in Haverhill.
“After the workshop closed last year, Michael Cormier and I discovered a very important historical element that involved the Indian Wars,” Cyr said.
The playwrights’ better understanding of the times came through consultation with witch trial authorities Emerson “Tad” Baker of Salem State University; author and scholar Marilynne Roach; historian Richard Trask of the Danvers Archival Center; and Rachel Christ, director of education at the Salem Witch Museum.
“Many of the young women that were accusing others of witchcraft came from the Maine territory communities that were attacked and destroyed,” Cyr said. “These girls had experienced serious emotional trauma and were considered refugees by the community.”
Cormier and Cyr concluded that multiple causes created layers of unrest within the community.
These ideas will be on the table for discussion. After the plays, Salem experts will tackle topics related to the trials.
Cormier hopes the play sheds light on the present day, using history as a lens to better understand the current political and social climate.
“This has happened before,” he said.
The trials have for many years intrigued and perplexed Cormier, a 1978 graduate of Haverhill High School, he said in an interview before last year’s workshop version.
He’s often wondered what drove Saltonstall’s decision to abandon the proceedings — so much so that he wrote a story about it, the story that has now been adapted for the stage.
More than 40 years ago, when Cormier was a kid, he and five family members traveled to Salem from their Haverhill home and toured witch sites. His father even struck up a friendship with Laurie Cabot, the Witch City’s official witch. Those visits sparked Cormier’s curiosity.
“What interested me was how (the hysteria) came about in the first place, and how it continued ...” he said. “That is the kernel, the genesis of my play ‘Saltonstall,’” he said. “It begins with the itching need to understand how people could do this to each other.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Saltonstall’s Trial”
When: Oct. 17, 18, 19, 24, 25 and 26 at 7:30 p.m. and Oct. 19, 20, 26 and 27 at 2:30 p.m.
Where: Larcom Theatre, 13 Wallis St., Beverly
How much: $19.50 to $39.50
More information: www.punctuate4.org
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Ipswich: Phil Thompson
Hamilton: Catherine Minnetyan
Wenham: Bobby Kerrigan
Boxford: Laura Dike, Noah Greenstein and Dan Bruns
Topsfield: Evangeline Adelman
Andover: Barbara Bourgeois
Haverhill: Carol Goans
Methuen: Herbert Clifford Dike
Nahant: Les Tarmy
Billerica: Shawna Ciampa
Arlington: Verjana Abazaj and Benjamin Evett
Boston: Christopher Lydon
Cambridge: Hal Scardino
Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Pamela Battin-Sacks and Steve Sacks