This strikingly intense Steppenwolf production of “The Crucible” treats Arthur Miller’s Salem-set, McCarthy-inspired drama of accusation and persecution as if it belonged largely to the horror genre. Director Anna D. Shapiro, about to make her Broadway debut with “August: Osage County,” makes Miller’s work feel current not by forcing hidden (or obvious) corollaries to today’s news, but simply by maintaining a level of fearful agitation so palpable that the total breakdown of reason and justice seems perfectly logical.
Todd Rosenthal’s spare, beautiful set has a period-evoking bare room at the center, made of washed-out planks that rise up to the ceiling at an artful angle. But the woods themselves can also be seen on the periphery — so very creepy, and so familiar from screen scare-fests like “The Blair Witch Project” and “The Village.”
Shapiro opens with a piercing offstage scream, infusing the start with a sense of panic that barely lets up. Within this emotionally charged environment, fear and paranoia spread easily. We see clearly, but still with a sense of nail-biting terror, how the entire town of Salem gets caught up in rumors of witchcraft, sometimes out of genuine superstition, but more often out of self-preservation and self-interest.
The Steppenwolf ensemble feels quite at home setting their performances at a fevered pitch. There’s a smorgasbord of excellent turns here, including, among others, Ian Barford’s enemy-obsessed Rev. Parris, Alana Arenas’ easily manipulated teenager Mary Warren, and Tim Hopper’s Rev. Hale, who seems physically weakened by the guilt he feels in the final scene.
Also superb in smaller roles are Mary Seibel, emanating virtue as Rebecca Nurse, and Maury Cooper, as the likeably contentious Giles Corey.
But two performances dominate.
First is James Vincent Meredith as John Proctor. Meredith is one of Steppenwolf’s newest ensemble members. He’s an unusual choice for the role, not just because he’s African-American (Shapiro lets those resonances fall where they will), but because he’s such a passionate performer.
If Proctor is usually a mixture of reasoned dissent mixed with pangs of quiet guilt for his dalliance with the dangerous teen Abigail Williams (Kelly O’Sullivan), Meredith finds in him a man governed by oversized emotion as much as intellect. It’s easy to see why Parris sees him as such a threat, seeming almost to cower in his presence.
But making the biggest impression of all is Francis Guinan as Deputy Gov. Danforth, the lead judge in trials that condemn the innocent. Partially, this is because Danforth’s speeches — so perverse in their circular reasoning that condemns all who question him — feel so very relevant today. But it’s also because, in a production defined by a frenetic pace, he lets us see the layers of complex thought flitter through his character’s mind.
He’s the scariest figure in this entire work because he provides himself room for reason, and, for his own reasons, still chooses fear.