The show must go on, of course, even if the playwright you’re honoring passes away midway through a two-play tribute. So the Alley Theater is soldiering on with its presentation of Arthur Miller’s much-produced, ever-more-relevant “The Crucible,” the second of two revivals (following a recent, well-received staging of “After the Fall”) originally intended as the Houston company’s celebration of the revered dramatist’s 90th birthday. Unfortunately, the current production on Alley’s Hubbard Stage has emerged as a memorial tribute to Miller, who took his final curtain call Feb. 10.
Loosely based on events in 17th-century Massachusetts during the infamous Salem witch trials, “The Crucible” is best known to two or three generations of English students and drama majors as a metaphoric fable about the craven betrayals, scattershot accusations and guilt-by-association snap judgments of the McCarthy era.
More recently, however, Miller’s “period piece” has been every bit as pertinent as a study of paranoia-fueled mass hysteria (a phenomenon familiar to anyone who has followed certain high-profile trials of accused child molesters and allegedly homicidal Satanists). And in the wake of 9/11, “Crucible” feels even more uncomfortably prescient in its view of unchecked authority figures who seek to purge insidious threats, real or imagined, while denouncing their critics as subversives.
To his credit, Alley artistic director Gregory Boyd refrains from overstressing the contemporary parallels in this solid, generally well-acted production. To be sure, he’s occasionally hard-pressed to sustain a sense of intense intimacy on Kevin Rigdon’s cavernous set (which resembles, inexplicably, the massive basement of an abandoned warehouse). And he allows the “possessed” children led by the conniving Abigail Williams (played a tad too brazenly by Jennifer Cherry) to writhe in ways that are all too obviously (and none too smoothly) choreographed.
But Boyd gets into real trouble only when he indulges in flourishes of costuming and staging that appear designed to evoke memories of “The Exorcist” and similar beat-the-devil movies. It’s not enough that all the clergymen on view — including the hypocritically self-righteous Rev. Parris (John Tyson) and the fatally well-intentioned Rev. Hale (Philip Lehl) — wear cassocks and white collars of the sort commonly associated with Catholic priests. When Rev. Hale dons a ceremonial stole before ministering to a little girl who’s possibly possessed by Satan, some audience members may half expect the child to start upchucking green-pea soup.
Despite these distracting miscalculations, the Alley revival impresses as a worthy rendering of a powerful drama. Efficiently streamlined — four acts compressed into two — and compellingly paced, it boasts a splendidly authoritative lead perf by Alley vet James Black as John Proctor, a deeply flawed yet ultimately admirable man of reason who achieves redemption and transcendence even as he’s destroyed by the system he rebels against.
Elizabeth Heflin makes a smoothly incremental transition from wounded resentment to tearful pride as Elizabeth Proctor, John’s wife. Cast as polar opposites — one willfully blind to any sign that his cause is unjust, the other increasingly torn by agonizing uncertainties — Tyson and Lehl are equally adept at illuminating all facets of their characters. As Deputy Gov. Danforth, the stern witchfinder general who remains an unyielding judge even after he senses faint shadows of doubt, Jeffrey Bean subtly suggests alternating currents of sincerity and self-deception.
It would be presumptuous to speculate about what Miller might have thought of the Alley production. But it is reasonably safe to assume he would have greatly appreciated what Boyd and his actors have done to convey the continued timeliness of what likely will prove to be a timeless drama. Indeed, while viewing “The Crucible” so soon after Miller’s death, some theatergoers may find themselves recalling the phrase H.G. Wells wanted for his own epitaph: “God damn you all, I told you so.”