Fact-based drama probes to heart of Salem witch hunt

THREE Sovereigns for Sarah (PBS, 9 p.m., Mondays, May 27, June 3, and June 10 -- check local listings for dates and times) bills itself as ``a true story'' and turns out to be a generally absorbing and instructive 17th-century version of docu-drama. The carefully researched three-hour ``American Playhouse'' miniseries strives mightily to convey the same feeling of factualness so common these days in docu-dramas about current events. In tension-building stages, it depicts the witchcraft hysteria in Salem Village, Mass., through the eyes of survivor Sarah Cloyce, portrayed in a low-key performance of devastating impact by Vanessa Redgrave.

Because these events happened almost 300 years ago (late 1691 to early 1693), the documentation took lots of strenuous detailing, plus a determination to shake off some of the canards clinging to this infamous episode in early American history -- canards reinforced by effective but somewhat historically misleading works like Arthur Miller's play ``The Crucible.''

Happily, writer-producer Victor Pisano was willing to stick rather faithfully to his facts, something historians told him had never been done in previous films, plays, or TV dramas on this subject. None of this series' 36 speaking roles are fictitious, according to ``American Playhouse,'' and a lot of the dialogue is based closely on transcripts and old manuscripts. The result is an honest and ultimately viewer-rewarding effort to get at the roots of this terrible, baffling period -- even though some of the familiar docu-drama problems are present, primarily the nagging question about where facts stop and dramatic license begins.

But such questions fade as Sarah's compelling story unfolds. As the first episode opens, she is telling it to a court of inquiry convened by the crown in 1703 to review the witch-hunting episode. Even for the colonies, Salem Village, it seems, was an insular and provincial hamlet full of mean-spirited disputes and personal ill will. Through flashbacks, middle-aged Sarah -- in an effort to clear her name and that of her two sisters hanged as witches -- relates how the trouble acquired a focal point when the town got a new minister, after much dispute. Soon some little girls began shrieking and twitching in what were called ``fits.'' In the absence of any medical cause, the diagnosis was witchcraft, and the girls were pressed by their elders to name the witches whose ``spectral'' bodies were hurting them. Arrests followed, and by the time the three episodes are over, 19 people have been hanged, one old man crushed under rocks, and three others have perished in jail.

To the show's credit, its quest for authenticity extends beyond the expected period costumes, houses, and other details to something much rarer -- the attitudes of the people themselves. This script is not a modernist view pitting paranoid witch hunters against progressive nonbelievers who scoff at the whole notion of witchcraft. The villagers all believed firmly in witches and were members of a faith that saw them as an ever-present danger in daily life.

Reinforced by this belief, the little girls were often quite believable when ``possessed'' -- much more so, for instance, than the girl in the film ``The Exorcist,'' because there were no gruesome sci-fi effects here and because a sense of human manipulation and ulterior motives was mixed in with the ``involuntary'' fits. Even the three heroic and relatively enlightened sisters who are the focus of the story felt that belief in witches per se was not the problem. Rather it was corrupt, uncontrolled witch hunting of a kind that allowed ``spectral'' evidence to send innocent old women to the hanging tree.

The series has some of its most touching moments when the sometimes portentous rhetoric yields to natural dialogue. Sarah's testimony before the private court can get a bit literary (``uncertainty seeped into every household'' -- although that may be part of the record). And some scenes come off more like a Greek tragedy than the nasty, neurotic caldron of fanaticism, malice, and often petty feuding which the plot suggests may be at the heart of the trouble.

But when Sarah and her two sisters are simply talking among themselves, the exchanges become lively and idiomatic. Redgrave's performance is a marvel of semi-sullen rebellion and subdued outrage. She is complex but meaningful in her evocation of uncertainty, bafflement, grief, and bitterness. And she is the least clich'ed and predictable among a generally solid cast that also includes Phyllis Thaxter as Sarah's elderly sister Rebecca Nurse, who is historically among the best known of the accused, a harried old heroine whom Thaxter imbues with a saintly yet not cloying personality.

Kim Hunter lends insightful heroism to the role of their sister Mary Easty. And in the smaller but telling role of Tituba, Sylvia Anne Soares skillfully underscores the palpable but unheeded evil of slavery in their midst as the villagers wrestle with the phantom of witchcraft.

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