One of the area's best-kept theatrical secrets is tucked away at a small community theater in Silver Spring.

The current run of Silver Spring Stage's "The Crucible" rivals professional productions. Unfortunately, it played to a half-empty house, a mere 50 people, on a recent Saturday night, allowing only a fortunate few to experience the breathtaking performance.

Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," set in 1692, portrays the paranoia culminating in a rash of witchcraft trials in Salem, Mass., that took the lives of many falsely accused. The play was first presented in the 1950s when Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) was holding congressional hearings to find communists who had infiltrated the U.S. government.

The play is not easy fare for professional troupes, much less community theater. The challenge is to sustain the audience's attention in the solemn, nearly three-hour play, a feat that Silver Spring Stage masters.

The performances of all characters are gripping, emotionally capturing the audience.

The small, dark theater creates an appropriate mood for the play, along with a sparse set aptly portraying the barren and frightening atmosphere of the town and authentic black and white costumes.

Although the play is intended to be melodramatic, there is a problem with overwhelming sound effects, specifically an abundance of screaming, and unnecessarily loud, solemn background music that could be tempered. Such emotional techniques, used more sparingly, may be more effective.

One of the most outstanding performers is Bill Roberts as John Proctor, the play's force of "good," whose wife is accused of witchcraft by his former lover, Abigail Williams (Mia Reeves). Roberts brings depth to a character whose fate is doomed because he fights to save the accused. Roberts conveys his dilemma through a range of emotions, going from a self-assured town citizen to a desperate, soul-searching victim, winning the audience's sympathy.

Reeves is spellbinding as Abigail, the spiteful young girl who starts the wave of witchcraft accusations. She executes one of the play's most difficult parts effortlessly, displaying coyness, faked naivete and outright pleasure at the thought of being responsible for the murder of John Proctor's wife. Inherently wicked, she makes the audience despise her because of her back-door manipulation.

Two scenes she plays are particularly chilling: when she tries to woo John Proctor and tells him of her plan to get his wife killed, and when she pretends to be possessed by evil spirits.

Among the other notable performances are Stephanie Mumford as the soft-spoken Elizabeth Proctor; Carolyn Hoffman as the frightened young Mary Warren, who is tangled in Abigail's witchcraft plots, and Dean Avery, whose frightening baritone voice makes him believable as the hated Judge Hathorne.

"The Crucible" plays through March 19 at Silver Stage.