It’s fire and brimstone time at the Virginia Theater, where Richard Eyre’s dark, stark and moralistic production of “The Crucible” is thundering across the stage nightly. It could be argued that another layer of moralism is precisely what Arthur Miller’s 1952 play about the Salem witch trials doesn’t need, but Eyre’s production has an earnest integrity to the text that firmly accentuates the play’s powerful aspects, even if it fails to elide problematic ones. The production is anchored by admirable performances in roles large and small, in particular a faultless, emotionally fertile one from Liam Neeson as John Proctor, the honorable farmer whose life is destroyed by the forces of hysteria and venality clothed as righteousness.
Tim Hatley’s massive wooden sets create a brooding, ominous atmosphere. They rise to the considerable height of the Virginia Theater proscenium and turn the large stage into spaces alternately isolating and claustrophobic; the only glimpse of nature is a sliver of bucolic New England countryside seen briefly through the open door of Proctor’s farmhouse. Paul Gallo’s lighting slashes across the stage with an unyielding forcefulness akin to the portentous clangings of Scott Myers’ sound design. This is not a place, in short, in which you expect to find the angels of justice and mercy gamboling merrily about.
The blueprint for Eyre’s approach is to be found in Miller’s play, a long, strongly voiced indictment of human corruptibility and the dangers of falling in line behind leaders who prefer convenient orthodoxies to the more complicated truth. Miller was writing with a fervent point to make in 1953, when the Red Scare was gaining dangerous momentum. He was trying to shake his audiences into an awareness of the gathering storm and its threat to the rights of the individual enshrined in the Constitution.
Almost half a century later, that context is history, and yet the polemical fierceness of the writing remains embedded in the text, which unfolds with such heat, it often plays like a melodrama with social and political overtones. The strict delineation of guilt and innocence in the primary characters leaves little room for nuance, for example, with the noble Proctor (adultery notwithstanding) and his good wife allied with a couple of ornery townsfolk against the forces of self-righteousness serving self-interest.
Miller was certainly an intelligent analyst of the ways in which ignorance, fear and envy can be dressed up in the clothes of piety and thereby given moral authority and worldly power. And watching this process taking place can be a harrowing experience, as it often is in this terrifically acted production, which boasts a cast that manages to outnumber the parade of above-the-title producers.
But the triumph of unalloyed evil over unalloyed good is not a spectacle that can be comfortably stretched over three hours of drama and still retain its fascination. Eventually, exhaustion sets in: This may be history in all its ugliness, but that does not make it perfect theater. The vehemence of Miller’s writing eventually saps some of its dramatic effectiveness.
This is by no means due to a lack of conviction or skill on the part of the evening’s performers. In his thoughtful performance as Proctor, the effortlessly charismatic Neeson subtly delineates a man’s moral evolution, as Proctor moves from casual scorn for the proceedings to outrage to soul-stricken despair as his attempts to fight for justice are systematically denied and then used against him. The play’s last scene, in which Proctor signs and then renounces his confession, is extraordinarily moving, as we watch a beaten and bewildered many first forfeit and then regain his moral bearings. Perhaps the finest aspect of Neeson’s performance is its admirable restraint: He never insists on Proctor’s nobility, even when Miller hands him the material for that kind of grandstanding; he accentuates instead the man’s bewildered, increasingly desperate attempts to avoid his martyrdom. Laura Linney gives a likewise restrained but deeply felt performance as Elizabeth, whose integrity is inextricably and tragically lined to strict control of her emotions.
Among the smaller roles, the Tituba of Patrice Johnson makes a searing impression in the play’s first scene, when this powerless servant is forced to fabricate fantastical tales of trafficking with the devil to save her skin. Angela Bettis has a furtive, scary self-possession as Abigail Williams, the comely young woman who points the finger of demonic frolicking at Elizabeth out of sexual jealousy. As the Proctors’ servant Mary Warren, Jennifer Carpenter touchingly illustrates how a shallow but essentially good girl’s heart can be manipulated in the service of destruction by a stronger one.
The scene in which Mary tries to recant her testimony and is cowed when her former cohorts turn their accusations against her is creepy and powerful — but it is also a bit exasperating. Miller’s play is a troublesome one for contemporary audiences, who can sometimes be heard snorting at the gullibility — or the outright mendacity — of the authorities rendering judgment in these trials (does no one get suspicious when Abigail’s itchy finger of accusation falls on her latest accuser?).
These include Deputy Governor Danforth, played by Brian Murray, and the Reverend Parris, played by Christopher Evan Welch. Murray’s Danforth is such a flagrantly unctuous hypocrite that some of his more high-handed protestations — “The pure in heart need no lawyer,” for instance — are greeted with guffaws. An actor of firm gravity might have made Danforth into a figure of more ambiguity: a deluded man but one driven by real convictions. And Welch’s Parris, credibly a man on the verge of hysteria in the play’s opening scene, has almost resorted to mustache-twirling by the time of the trials.
Casting that went against the poisonous grain of these characters might have rectified some of the problem (and it might have been wise to clothe Danforth in something other than a veritable witch’s cape and hat in the last scene), but really the fault is in the structure of the play, which rubs our noses in the uprightness of Proctor and the nefariousness of his accusers to such a degree that at times the proceedings lose the power to move, anger and terrify us and instead merely begin to irritate. (John Benjamin Hickey gives a solid performance as the Reverend Hale, the only figure to move from black to white, but the character is written rather patly.)
That’s a painful deficiency, because certainly the lessons of the play are still relevant — indeed ever-relevant. The uproar surrounding Bill Maher’s comments relating to the terrorist attacks, for example, instantly springs to mind as we watch Proctor and his allies being punished for daring to question the authority of the tribunal, or voicing their disbelief in the existence of witches. And references to “the voice of heaven speaking through the children” can’t help but remind you of the dismayingly similar hysteria surrounding the supposed epidemic of Satanic child abuse several years back, which destroyed the lives of many teachers and caretakers.
But theater is always in danger of forsaking the power to affect us deeply when we can neatly transcribe the points being made, even if they fuel lively post-theater discussion. This production honors both the letter and the spirit of Miller’s text — notwithstanding a misguided calamitous final coup de theatre — but there’s a prickly irony in the result: A play about the dangers of hysteria that feeds on doctrinaire religion feels uncomfortably like a very long, very eloquent sermon.