The Devil's work

ACT revives an American classic and shows what we've been missing.

IN HIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Timebends, Arthur Miller details an encounter he had with Molly Kazan, Elia's wife, just after the director had told the playwright that he had given names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Miller mentioned that he was heading next to Salem, as part of the work he'd already begun on a new play. When the affronted Mrs. Kazan said, "You're not going to equate witches with this!" Miller replied that he didn't even know if he could write the play, "but I was going to look into the stuff they had up there."

The Crucible

A Contemporary Theater, ends May 30

"The stuff" was the Salem witch trials in 1692, which have cast such a long shadow on American history that its relevance and the relevance of The Crucible to our society have seldom been less than direct. When the play opened in 1953, the nationwide panic was over Communists. At the tail end of a decade that has seen waves of similar hysteria about satanic cults and child sex rings, we've topped them all with the right-wing attempts to topple a president for his sexual adventures. Rarely have witch hunts seemed so popular.

But while this major dose of zeitgeist makes ACT's production of this play especially potent, it should not distract audiences from the artistic merits of the play, as staged by artistic director Gordon Edelstein. This is as powerful a dramatic production, strong in both the head and the heart, as I've seen come out of this theater in years. Ordinarily, the sunken stage in the round of the venue's Falls Theater is at best a novelty, at worst a distraction, as audience members peer across the stage at each other. But from the first crashing blackout to the final drum roll, The Crucible's stage is transformed into a palpable pressure cooker.

Based on historical events, The Crucible charts the collapse of a community into paranoia, betrayal, and violence, fueled by the testimony of several young girls (and a Jamaican slave named Tituba) that there is a hidden community of witches in Salem. As the web of accusations spreads, fueled by superstition and longstanding grievances between neighbors, hundreds of women and men eventually are imprisoned, and 20 hanged, for the crime of witchcraft.

WHILE MILLER'S DRAMATIZATION is generally faithful to his research, the major fictional fillip that he adds is an illicit sexual relationship between one of the girls, Abigail (Hedy Burress), and John Proctor (Stephen Rowe), the farmer whose moral struggle is the play's centerpiece. While this decision makes good dramatic sense, highlighting issues of hypocrisy and creating a tension in the relationship between Proctor and his wife (who is eventually accused of witchcraft herself), it's of particular relevance to our own recent politics, and is a basic component of what Miller calls "a lethal brew of illicit sexuality, fear of the supernatural, and political manipulation" that characterizes the dark side of our society.

Edelstein and Miller make a good match, with the director distinctly in tune with the interplay of psychological, moral, financial, and political motivations that cause such seemingly inexplicable events. Epic in scope, The Crucible places the struggle of the individual and his family (the mainstay of American drama) into the context of what happens to that relationship when the society around it becomes murderous. Edelstein is aided in his task by Douglas Stein's confident production design and costumes by Martin Pakledinaz that blur the gulf of 300 years with a generic "rural look." He's also assembled an outstanding group of actors, in which Rowe, Laura Ann Worthen as Proctor's wife, Elizabeth, and Dan Kremer as the Grand Inquisitor Danforth are first among powerful equals. Rowe is especially generous in a role that's prone to grandstanding, much more an unassuming and ironic farmer than the heroic "leader of men" that the role often becomes.

Miller's ersatz Puritan-speak can sound painfully affected in the wrong mouths, but the cast manages to find its muscle and deftly dodge its more leaden passages of purple prose. The trial scene in the third act, when Proctor finally confronts his wife's accusers, is boldly staged with a welcome restraint on heavy-breathing hysteria (though Edelstein, and actor Kevin Donovan as the witchfinder Hale, can't resist the tones of the evangelistic revival earlier on; but then really, who can blame them?). In fact, for all of its drama, this is a remarkably controlled and at times truly witty production. It's a sign of how confident the company is in the material that they're willing to allow a few laughs to leak out, particularly in Danforth's repeated assertions that this is a court of God and the innocent have nothing to fear. Now where have we heard rhetoric like that recently?

One of the real tragedies of American theater is that because Miller's initial production of The Crucible was received with lukewarm praise, his own writing moved away from the larger casts, and larger social issues, that are handled so well here. Financial concerns in nonprofit theater also make it unlikely that we'll see a play with this sort of ambition and scope emerge any time soon. But ACT's current production is a glorious rediscovery of a masterful script, and makes it all the more strange that 40 years on, we're still so far from having learned its fundamental lessons.

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