The Crucible

Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Pamela Moller Kareman
ArcLight Theatre
152 West 71st Street

Anyone who believes that the difference between paranoia and perceptiveness is a matter of mere semantics should not miss The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s history lesson on the Puritanical pedigree of American justice and its ever-irrational tendencies. In the capable hands of the Schoolhouse Theater and Mare Nostrum Elements, the off-Broadway revival of Miller’s classic retains its intended punch, delivering a brassy and uncompromising account of the infamous witch trials that tore through colonial Massachusetts.

The year is 1692, and the village of Salem has fallen prey to a mysterious plague, one that inflicts its victims with a dementia so severe it makes the troubled songstress Amy Winehouse look like the model of lucidity. Among those infected by the sudden outbreak is Betty Parris (Lauren Currie Lewis), the young daughter of Reverend Samuel Parris (Keith Barber). Desperate to save his ailing child, Samuel enlists the services of John Hale (Kevin Albert), an authority on all things supernatural. Hale begins to suspect that the girl’s malady may be the result of witchcraft, and it isn’t long before word of his suspicion spreads, causing widespread panic throughout the province. Meanwhile, local farmer John Proctor and his wife, Elizabeth (Simon MacLean and Sarah Bennett), seem to be the only two villagers with enough sense to dismiss the whole idea of witches as pure nonsense. But when Elizabeth herself is fingered as a dabbler in the black arts, the Proctors are subsequently hauled of to jail — and nothing short of a full confession will save them from a public hanging.

The Crucible is Miller’s most-performed play, and an easy one to suffocate under a blanket of self-satisfied execution. But the Schoolhouse Theater avoids this pitfall with stellar performances and a brisk pace. Director Pamela Moller Kareman never lets us blink as her cast members unleash their deluge of evangelical tirades, warning of the devil’s wily ways and the dangers of not knowing our Commandments. The actors’ chilling authenticity rips us back to a time when America was lousy with unchecked ignorance. It’s a fierce and frustrating depiction: extreme enough to show us how far we’ve come, yet familiar enough to remind us how little we’ve changed. MacLean and Bennett share a brilliant chemistry as John and Elizabeth Proctor, who serve as the story’s rational and sympathetic core.

Arthur Miller first penned The Crucible in 1953 at the height of the Red Scare. His intent, of course, was to use the witch trials as a metaphor for McCarthyism, but more than half a century later his message subsists — whether it’s in President Bush’s wiretapping fiasco or Mayor Bloomberg’s scheme to catalog the DNA of anyone unfortunate enough to be arrested in New York City. Paranoia is alive and well, and the Schoolhouse Theater has unmasked it with great perceptiveness.

****

Originally published in Show Business Weekly, January 2008

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