The Salem witch trials are a strange, shadowy part of our past: Was that really us, burning those accused of invisible crimes, stringing up suspicious women on trees, hanging them from the branches like Christmas ornaments?

What’s especially bizarre about “The Crucible,” Arthur Miller’s dramatization of that time and place, is that the power lies with girls. They can manipulate the masses; the entire community is like Play-Doh in their small hands.

“That’s what’s fascinating about this show: The children are in charge,” said Susan Marie Rhea, who is directing “The Crucible” at Keegan Theatre for the second time. Rhea just returned with her cast from a three-week tour in Ireland.

Sarah Lasko, the actress playing the ringleader, Abigail, describes her as “the alpha. . . . She’s so devious and manipulative. . . . She hides behind the innocence and ultimately is this evil person.

“What the girls do in this play [is] completely for attention, and it’s also extremely scary. . . . There’s really high stakes at every moment.”

Citing the Puritan style of child-rearing — Puritans took to parenting as they took to everything else that occurred outside church: as an unwelcome distraction from prayer — Rhea said, “You can see how the chance to be in charge and have power would have been intoxicating.”

The nine girls playing Abigail’s gang range in age from 9 to 17.

Rhea acknowledged that working with a younger cast was more time-consuming but said, “There’s something thrilling to me about sitting there and they’re bona fide teenagers. . . . When I see a show done and there are roles that are called for teenagers, and there’s a 25-year-old, it bums me out. In my opinion, it’s worth all the extra hours.”

Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. Through Nov. 19. ­ 703-892-0202.

It’s all in his mind

Artistic Director Ari Roth’s 100th production at Theater J will be Arthur Miller’s “After the Fall.”

Not “Death of a Salesman.” Not “All My Sons.” Not even “A View From the Bridge.”

“After the Fall,” which opens Wednesday, is the most cerebral of Miller’s works — cerebral in the literal sense, as in, the entire story unfolds inside the mind of its protagonist, Quentin, as he struggles to find a reason to live in the wake of his second wife’s death.

“The critical consensus was very divided on ‘After the Fall,’ ” Roth said. “It was a play that made a deep impression and also made people very wary. . . . It was not a flop or a failure; it was just one of the most challenging.”

Roth, though, says he thinks a modern audience will take to the material in a decidedly different manner. When “After the Fall” opened in 1964, audiences deemed the show too intimate — the character of Maggie, an obvious stand-in for Marilyn Monroe, seemed an insensitive portrayal in the aftermath of Monroe’s death. Quentin, a Jewish lawyer tangled in his thoughts, was an unsubtle echo of Miller, who was undergoing psychoanalysis as he wrote the play.

“Part of the criticism was that it’s too personal, it’s too indulgent,” Roth said. “Nowadays, there’s nothing that’s too personal, there’s nothing that’s too indulgent.” And 2011 audiences “have distance, perspective and understanding” about the “unsentimental” depiction of the Monroe-inspired character.

“It’s a deeply existential play . . . about how to go on in the face of total disillusionment and alienation,” Roth said.

“You’ve got characters trying to forge a meaningful life. After two failed marriages, do you have the blind faith to begin again, to marry again? [Miller] argues, it can’t be blind. You have to look at all of your faults and all of the limitations of human beings, and all of their mixed motivations. Looking at all that, then you say: I can begin again.”

Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW. Wednesday to Nov. 27. 800-494-8497.

Not your typical grammar school

In Doorway Arts Ensemble’s “Sex and Education,” Joe, the prototypical basketball star, is held hostage by Miss Edwards, an uptight English teacher clocking in her last day on the job. Miss Edwards intercepts a note that Joe tried to pass his girlfriend, Hannah (who, as the Law of High School Relationships requires, is a cheerleader), and Joe must remain in Miss Edwards’s classroom until the note — a profanity-laced effort at persuading Hannah to have sex with him — is grammatically correct.

This raises some questions. Why would a prim female educator promote teen sex? Has any woman in the history of intercourse consented to sex only on the grounds her suitor’s request was expressed in perfect English? Didn’t students stop passing notes on paper in 2001?

Just . . . go with it. The pleasure in this production stems from the verbal sparring among radically different individuals, characters who shock by speaking deliberately out of character.

Playwright Lissa Levin was inspired by her own experience as the mother of a high school athlete; she taught her son, a basketball player utterly uninterested in English class, the parts of speech by speaking like a resident of South Park. (Her lesson began with a simple: “F--- you. What’s the object of the sentence? You.”)

Levin describes the play as “a valentine to teachers and a valentine to the importance of English grammar.” The crux of the story lies in “how the wisdom and life experience that comes from [sex] is actually similar to all those things that come from when you’re an educated person.”

Miss Edwards sneaks a grammar lesson into a bawdy discussion of sex for the academia-averse athlete like cookbook writer Jessica Se infeld spikes brownies with spinach for vegetable-phobic children. Although much of the discussion is between Joe (played by Jonathan Douglas) and Miss Edwards (Ellen Mansueto), Hannah (Emily Thompson, in her professional stage debut) makes cameos throughout, shaking her pompoms while chanting a list of auxiliary verbs.

Levin hopes the play allows audiences to see language in a new light. “One of the goals of ‘Sex and Education’ was to make grammar sexy.”

Theater 2 in the Cultural Art Center Montgomery College , 7995 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. Friday to Nov. 20. 240-567-5775.