Camden Hills Regional High School is known for its wonderful Strom Auditorium, which has seated thousands since its opening. Less known is the black box theater back stage, a black curtain-defined square for presenting smaller works. The spring show generally takes place here and this year’s, Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” really demonstrates the power of this format and this space.

The May 7 opening night performance was well-attended, with audience members sitting quite close to the edge of the stage which, for this Puritan-era setting, is a cedar-gray square of wide planks sitting just a few inches above the floor. The audience seating is a few inches higher and a couple of risers raked, advantageous for a production featuring those pilgrim hats.

Yes, it’s 1692 in Salem, Mass. The furniture that is carried on and off the platform by the cast is simple, dark and rough-hewn and the costumes, produced for the most part via a Youth Arts residency with local costumer Kathleen P. Brown, are period-correct and in muted tones, aside from white bonnets, collars and aprons. This is one good-looking production.

The evening began with a period song sung by the small chorus that sat on one of the four sides of seating. Led by the play’s director, history teacher Tom Gray, the chorus, a mix of adults and students, offered occasional songs that spoke to the fervor of the times. Some of these songs have a lot of verses and there were a few times I wished for a shorter version; the opening piece, for example, would pack a meaner punch if it ended with the verse that references Salem directly.

The opening night performance started on a high pitch of emotion and never wavered. Betty Parris (Rebecca Gray) lay insensible while her father, the Rev. Parris (Alistair Phaup), prayed over her with increasing agitation. Something was wrong in his house, and he was taking it personally. Many of the characters we would follow over the next several hours showed up in the first few minutes. The town’s teen girls, the ones who soon would be “the children” around which everything whirled, entered one by one to see their friend and all were visibly in distress, especially MacKenzie Gassett’s Mary Warren. Jolly Brown’s doomed Tituba handled her Bahamian patois well, and Emma Conover’s Rebecca Nurse projected a self-possession and reasonableness that very soon would be lacking in Salem Town.

The men were a lot more demonstrative, vocally; my notes say, “a little less yelling, please!” They have reason to be worked up. This well-written play makes clear from the very beginning that the motivation behind the town’s rising spirit of condemnation is the desire for power and for property. The devil really has little to do here; human dissatisfaction will rend this community on its own.

The community’s females, the ones with the least overt power and property, are the ones who both drive and suffer most from the accusations of witchcraft and resulting trials and deaths. Abigail Williams seeks both power and property in the only way open to a young woman of her time, by marriage. The fact her choice of husband is already married is not as much an obstacle as one might think, given a past affair and her considerable force of will.

Maddie Chilton plays Abigail with assurance and her interactions with Morgan Cates’ John Proctor have believable charge. There was a moment I’m not even sure is scripted in the midst of some Betty’s bedroom shouting when the two exchanged a look quite fierce as she returned his fallen hat. Cates’ Proctor is sometimes hidden by said hat but comes across as a good and imperfect man, not a combination to thrive in this atmosphere.

Anna Rich plays Elizabeth Proctor, John’s long-suffering wife. The supper scene in their rustic home was a complete contrast from the play’s opener — quiet, nuanced, willing to take its time and hold silence. This couple grows in their connection and understanding even as the circumstances around them pull them apart, and Cates and Rich tell that story well.

Another quiet, centered portrayal is, surprisingly enough, that of the Rev. Hale, a spiritual celebrity who comes to Salem when witchcraft is rumored. Ian Doran can’t intimidate the village’s men physically but when he speaks in measured tones in the midst of their sputtering, he easily holds sway. Doran’s Hale almost comes across as the voice of reason from his first appearance, making Hale’s later turn against the proceedings less dramatic because we don’t really perceive him as being responsible for some of the escalation.

That escalation pushes this production; the vocal piece that re-started the show after intermission had the chorus clumping their feet in inexorable rhythm. There is more black humor in this play than comes across in this production, but Jonas Burke’s Giles Corey proves a vessel, between his Down East accent and skillful delivery of such lines as “There be other Christians that do plow on Sundays!”

Plowing on a Sunday is far from John Proctor’s biggest problem, however. Once the court comes to Salem, the town’s drive to destruction is unstoppable. Nick Merrill’s Judge Danforth is a good example of angry intensity delivered without excessive volume; he comes across as a frustrated drill sergeant. But all the big men are ruled by a small band of teenage girls who see and feel things they can’t.

Black box staging is a challenge when it comes to choosing seats, and my choice left me blocked by tall boys in big hats during most of the group scenes. Overall, you might do best taking a seat in the side that faces the beds when you first go in. However, in the compelling scene where the girls, led by the strong-willed Abigail, take back the proceedings and lure back the vacillator among them, the evil bird they were “seeing” must have been perched right over my head — it was pretty thrilling, I can tell you.

“The Crucible” is really a wonderful play; I kept jotting down quotes just because they were so delightful. Yes, it’s an allegory for the McCarthy hearings and hammers us on the head with that during John’s confession. But it also bears witness to the history of its setting, with chilling descriptions of how a New England town’s greed led to its cattle wandering the lanes unmilked and its children wandering the streets unparented. It’s good to revisit this classic of the American stage, and the Camden Hills production offers a handsome version.

By popular demand, an additional performance has been added. On Thursday, May 13 at 7 p.m., “The Crucible” will be presented as a “student night” with free admission for Camden Hills students and staff and $5 tickets for everyone else. On Friday and Saturday, May 14 and 15, the play also will be presented at 7 p.m. Tickets for these performances are $7, $5 for students. To reserve, send e-mail to tom_gray@fivetowns.net.

VillageSoup Art/Entertainment Editor Dagney Ernest can be reached at 207-594-4401 or by e-mail to dernest@villagesoup.com.