'The Crucible' revived on Broadway

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  March 29, 2002 at 11:41 AM
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NEW YORK, March 29 (UPI) -- Arthur Miller's stage masterpiece "The Crucible," performed across the nation and around the world since its 1953 Tony Award-winning Broadway premiere, has returned to Broadway for a long-overdue revival starring Liam Neeson and Laura Linney.

Perhaps no other play has plumbed so deeply the American psyche and its devotion to freedom, both physical and mental, as this play about the Salem witch trials in late 17th century Massachusetts. Today, with much of the world engaged in a war against terrorist religious fundamentalists who threaten our freedoms on all fronts, "The Crucible" -- written as a metaphor for the McCarthy-era communist witch hunts -- has never seemed timelier.

It is Miller's most accessible play and has been performed more often than his ever-popular "Death of a Salesman." The current production at the Virginia Theater, a limited run through June 8, has been directed by the eminent London-New York director-producer Richard Eyre and demonstrates once again the play's eternal appeal for theater-goers of all ages, particularly the young.

"Maybe it's the perfect time to do the play, but this play is so strong it doesn't need events in the world to justify it," Eyre said in an interview. "It will always be pertinent to any society of whatever political leanings because it is about tension between freedom and repression."

The audience for the preview performance this critic attended was filled with enthusiastic high school students who had obviously been boned up on the play and its historic setting and were having the time of their lives seeing it come to life on the stage. It was an exhilarating experience because Broadway audiences have aged in recent years and youth is rarely seen in the theaters.

The play concerns a community of English colonists, now in its second or third generation in America, who are confronted by the same kind of religious thought police that their ancestors had fled in Europe. It also deals with superstitions of the day, the latent tyranny of strict orthodoxy, opportunism, and other evils all too common to any society.

A group of young girls caught frolicking in the woods in a state of undress turns on their accusers and anyone else they don't like by claiming to have been bewitched by Satanic followers in the Salem community. They accuse respected matrons, including a beloved midwife, of having the evil eye, something they have learned about from a black servant from the West Indies.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony sets up a court to investigate the girls' claims and to prosecute, sentence and put to death anyone found guilty of witchcraft. Among those caught in the net are a morally upright farmer, John Proctor (Neeson), and his pious wife, Elizabeth (Linney), and it is their ordeal that is the crucible of the title, a word that to Puritans meant a severe trial as well as a metal heating pot..

Proctor is not an easy role, for he is not as blameless as he appears to be to his neighbors. He has taken liberties with an orphaned teen-age girl, Abigail (Angela Bettis), working as a maid in his home, and is struggling to win his wife's forgiveness for this lapse from grace. Neeson brings Proctor's inner turmoil to palpable life and his efforts to save his wife from death as a witch are achingly wrenching.

He is faced with a choice between self respect and self preservation and chooses self respect by not naming names to save his life. It is a chapter out of Miller's own life, now in its 86th year. He faced the House Un-American Activities Committee three years after writing "The Crucible" and refused under threat of imprisonment to name friends who may have had Communist associations.

Neeson's powerful performance as a noble individual pitted against the bigotry of a religion-dominated society carries the production -- which has its flaws, mostly in casting -- as well as its strengths.

Linney, a stage and screen actress best remembered for her a role in the film "You Can Count on Me," makes Elizabeth far too stern and almost too lifeless to make a mark on this play. Not giving Elizabeth a real personality might be blamed on Eyre's direction, but in any case Linney seems miscast in this formidable role, as does Bettis who makes the temptress Abigail a particularly sexless girl.

But there are stronger performances to make up these uneven ones. Brian Murray is a revelation as the prosecuting deputy governor who struggles to be fair despite his own smug, narrow views. Christopher Evan Welch is impressive as the Proctors' minister, a man caught in a similar quandary, and John Benjamin Hickey is splendid as a scholarly divine who comes to doubt John Proctor's guilt.

The girls playing the accusers have been badly selected, at least one of them being much too old, and they never give the play a believable hysterical quality, as Miller intended them to do. A simple crash of scenery that Eyre uses to symbolize the emotional climax of the play is much more unnerving than the feeble rantings of Salem's pubescent devil-sighters.

Tim Hatley's spare, rough-hewn sets, dimly and dramatically lit by Paul Gallo, reflect the simplicity and hardship of colonial life, and Hatley's drab costumes mirror disapproval of bright fabrics and unnecessary furbelows by a puritanical society that jailed 150 men and women for witchcraft, put 20 of them to death, and let others die in prison.

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