It is impossible to watch The Crucible unmindful of the political subtext Arthur Miller applied to his 1953 interpretive account of the Salem witch trials of 1692: When he wrote his gripping morality play, the House Un-American Activities Committee was hunting for Communists as rabidly as 17th-century New Englanders had accused neighbors of trucking with the Devil.
It is also impossible to watch The Crucible unmindful of new American tests of good and evil taking place right now, again in a climate of paranoia. The work is so well-known, the language so puritanically commanding, and Miller’s thundering American sermon about the need for individual moral bravery in the face of group pressure so rabbinic that, if anything, a new production runs the danger of feeling too familiar.
All the more profound, then, Richard Eyre’s commanding new production, which manages at once to strip rust from an old iron horse and burnish the metal of Miller’s most produced play to a beautiful, reflective luster. It’s not exactly a Shaker simplicity the acclaimed director (of scores of British and American stage productions, and the Oscar-nominated Iris, too) is after – the intricately simple sets and costumes of Tim Hatley and the pewter-colored lighting of Paul Gallo are more plainly magisterial than that. But there is a core clarity and integrity to the way each player plays out his or her part in the larger Salem society: I’ve never seen a production of The Crucible that so eloquently expressed a sense of community.
Still, without John and Elizabeth Proctor, there would be no Salem as Miller built it. Liam Neeson plays the charismatic farmer who wrestles in agony before claiming his good name as inviolable; Laura Linney plays his guileless wife, whose strong spine can sometimes be read for stiffness. And the two performances, each and intertwined, are so deep and full of life as to blow away all dusty schoolkid history.
”Now we shall touch the bottom of this swamp,” the fearsome Deputy Governor Danforth (estimable Brian Murray) declares in court. Yet as the treacheries of Abigail Williams (Angela Bettis), the whimperings of Mary Warren (Jennifer Carpenter), and the posturings of Rev. Parris (Christopher Evan Welch) and Rev. John Hale (John Benjamin Hickey) accrue, this stirring Crucible looks to the sky, not swamp. The stage becomes hugely tall, with glimpses of skylight visible between wooden beams – a perfect image of personal honesty unblocked by the weather-beaten clapboard of prevailing popular opinion.