Four years after Arthur Miller wrote a play about a louse - a man who was a failure as a husband, a father and a salesman - he wrote a play about a hero. The hero was a man in Puritan Massachusetts who redeemed his failures as a husband by his courageous, selfsacrificial commitment to honesty in a world gone berserk. The louse, of course, was Willy Loman, whose name has become a byword for the failure of the American dream in the mid-20th century. John Proctor, the hero of Miller's 1953 "The Crucible," should be every bit as emblematic as Loman. If he isn't, it may be because he is rarely played as powerfully as he is by Liam Neeson in the current revival, which also stars Laura Linney. Miller's play about the witch hunts in 17th-century Salem draws much of its power from its subtext. It was written when the country was in the grip of another witch hunt: Congress' attempt to find American Communists in the early years of the Cold War. This has given the play a longer life than it might have had on its own. "The Crucible" is, after all, a melodrama.
Before the play begins, Proctor had been an upstanding citizen. His one failing was a brief fling with a servant girl, Abigail Williams, whom his wife dismissed when she learned of the affair. Shortly afterward, Mary Warren, a servant who replaced Abigail, joined a band of girls accusing townspeople of witchcraft, often as a way of settling old scores. The pivot point of the play comes when Proctor's longsuffering wife is called on to denounce him for adultery. Not knowing that he has already confessed, she refuses to condemn him. She thus unwittingly seals his fate, implying to the court that he has lied. Such plotting would normally be dismissed as quaint and old-fashioned, but here the subtext makes it acceptable. Neeson's haunted, brooding look is perfect for Proctor. Moreover, his easy sensuality brings his difficult past effortlessly onto the stage, making his transformation into a man of unassailable character all the more dramatic and thrilling. Linney gives a performance of disarming simplicity. She is a woman wronged not only by her husband but by his villainous accusers. But she responds to a mountain of cruel torments with a dignity that is profoundly moving. Tom Aldredge is similarly affecting as an unjustly accused citizen, and Helen Stenborg conveys beautifully the inner strength of another martyr. John Benjamin Hickey has a poignant quality as a minister who comes to regret the forces that have been set in motion. Jennifer Carpenter gives a wrenching performance as the ultimately disloyal Mary, and Angela Bettis is wonderfully ruthless as Abigail, the leader of the accusing girls. As the judge who brings about the deaths of innocent people, Brian Murray falls into the trap of signaling us that he knows his character is evil, making the melodramatic aspects of the writing too apparent. Tim Hatley's costumes and sets, beautifully lit by Paul Gallo, have muted colors that suggest a world desperately trying to keep sensuality at bay. Under Richard Eyre's direction, the large cast handles Miller's artful creation of 17th-century language and inflections with great ease. "The Crucible" is one of Miller's most-revived plays, but it is seldom as impressive as this.
Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" was magisterially reignited at the Virginia Theatre last night in Sir Richard Eyre's slow-fused but fiery production, with a magnificently heroic Liam Neeson, faultlessly supported by Laura Linney, Brian Murray and many others.
Let me now cautiously admit that "The Crucible" always leaves me feeling that I should have admired it more than I actually did.
Miller based his play on the notorious 17th century Salem witch trials in Puritan Massachusetts. He did considerable research, using contemporary accounts and court transcripts. For his play, he improvised a sort of fustian Puritan-speak that will sound more convincing to some listeners than to others.
When the play debuted in 1953, it took on a special relevance with regard to McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee - although it should be noted that, despite the hysteric extravagances of that committee and its chairman, there actually were Communist agents in America, while there were no witches in Salem.
Still, the play's pitting of evil and conformist ideology against the individual will, unfortunately, always be relevant. But relevance itself does not a play make.
A major fault with this self-consciously righteous and didactic play is that it takes an unconscionable time to get going.
That first act is almost entirely exposition, bringing us up to date on the events leading to the trial of the hero, John Proctor, and his wife, whose integrity is tested in the face of mass hysteria.
In many ways, "The Crucible" has a lot in common with Bernard Shaw's "St. Joan," which also relies on the testing of the individual's integrity against the conformist power of religion and the state, and only comes to blazing life in the court scenes.
Proctor is a flawed man: He has committed adultery with the sexy servant girl, Abigail Williams, who leads a mob of girls who claim to see evil spirits and foam at the mouth.
Yet, flawed or not, there is no doubt that Proctor will do the right thing. It is that kind of a play, and this rugged farmer is that kind of hero, not nearly so complex as, say, Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman."
No praise can be too high for Neeson, who consistently appears much happier, even larger, on stage than on screen. Here he goes inside the role, and emerges triumphant, noble but not too noble, perplexed yet resolute.
Linney is equally at home as his good wife, Elizabeth. She can suggest undertones of feeling playing just beneath the skin of her character, and gently molds the play's most complicated figure.
Brian Murray blusters handsomely as the pompously bigoted Judge Danforth; John Benjamin Hickey is also fine as the subtly disturbed and subliminally honest Rev. Hale, while the doughty Tom Aldredge suggests just the kind of man stubborn enough to die under torture rather than falsely confess.
The one real weakness in the cast is Angela Bettis, who appears neither sexy nor evil enough as Abigail.
That said, those who do love "The Crucible" will find here a craftily effective "Crucible" to love.
When the Devil comes to call, it sure helps if you have star power on your side. Playing a husband and wife under moral siege during the Salem witch trials, Liam Neeson and Laura Linney bring a transfixing heat to Richard Eyre's otherwise merely sweaty revival of ''The Crucible,'' which opened last night at the Virginia Theater.
Watching these luminous performers in Arthur Miller's 1953 tale of individual conscience and social tyranny, you may find yourself thinking of another romantic pairing from the annals of honorable behavior. That's Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly in ''High Noon,'' the 1951 movie that like ''The Crucible'' was an allegorical cry of protest against the Communist witch hunts of the McCarthy era. Like Cooper and Kelly, Neeson and Linney make doing the right thing seem genuinely glamorous.
This is not to suggest that Mr. Neeson and Ms. Linney, who are best known for their work in film, fail to capture the essential ordinariness of the plain-speaking New Englanders they portray. As the farmer John Proctor and his wife, Elizabeth, they manage to be both poignantly, pathetically human and as big as CinemaScope, appropriate to common folk who instinctively rise to uncommon heights.
The intense focus with which Mr. Neeson and Ms. Linney embody their characters -- and the connections they forge between them -- makes the Proctors' relationship, more than ever, the moral and emotional touchstone in ''The Crucible.'' As John and Elizabeth struggle to maintain sanity and integrity in a world ''gone daft,'' as Proctor puts it, their faces, whether frightened or angry or lost, become an illuminated index of the madness and savagery around them.
Such an index is an absolute necessity in this imbalanced production. Mr. Eyre, the former director of the Royal National Theater in London, has indeed elicited deeply felt performances from his stars that bring fresh life to well-worn roles. He is far less confident in overseeing the rest of his large and exasperatingly uneven cast or in making a worthy old war horse of a play gallop like a young stallion.
There is no arguing with the enduring relevance and immediacy of the story of ''The Crucible,'' even at a moment when Americans are understandably finding their heroes among those who serve their state rather than those who would resist it.
In recent interviews and essays, Mr. Miller has pointed out the play's parallels to phenomena as diverse as fundamentalism in Israel and the frenzy of journalistic indignation surrounding President Clinton's impeachment. One need not, of course, look far today, either at home or abroad, for instances of rabid xenophobia or lock-step ideologies.
But for ''The Crucible'' to exert its full, admonitory power you need to feel the infectiousness of one town's hysteria, the frightening seductiveness as well as the ugliness of mob rule. You have not only to understand but also to feel why the Puritans who name names Salem-style, accusing one another of witchcraft, behave as they do. On this level Mr. Eyre's ''Crucible'' never catches fire.
This is not for want of devoted attention to the flame and heat metaphors that abound in Mr. Miller's script. The evening's first image, seen through the translucent scrim that serves as a drop curtain over Tim Hatley's austerely geometric set, is of a candle flame and a pair of glittering eyes.
These turn out to belong to Christopher Evan Welch as Reverend Parris, the local minister. And as he tends to his ailing, seemingly comatose young daughter (Betsy Hogg), his face is bedewed with the perspiration of raw fear. The message, underscored by David Van Tieg hem's ominous, anxious music and Paul Gallo's sooty lighting, is clear: Salem's got the fever, and it's got it bad.
For the rest of the production, you will see performers sweating as much as a basketball team in overtime. This is not just because Mr. Hatley's period costumes are heavy and the stage lights strong. References to characters wiping brows and blotting faces are found throughout the stage directions of ''The Crucible,'' underscoring the idea of the witch hunt as a febrile contagion.
The symptoms stay firmly on the surface in this ''Crucible,'' however, with little indication of the psychology that gives rise to them. Part of the fascination of the play is in seeing its characters convince themselves that their venal motives are ethical or -- in a few cases -- suspect the opposite. Most of the supporting performances here are sustained at one monotonous and often melodramatic pitch.
Mr. Welch, for example, plays Parris, a man who comes across as weak and foolish on the page, in the manner of Basil Rathbone being sinister in a Hollywood costume picture. He is such a hissing, scheming villain that when Parris starts to doubt himself in the final act, it's as if someone had shed daylight on a vampire.
Angela Bettis's Abigail, the girl who gives the witch hunt its strongest momentum, is even more damagingly misconceived. More than any other character, Abigail reflects the sexual element in the hysteria that overtakes Salem.
Abigail is the spurned lover of Proctor, with whom she had an affair while working as a servant in his house. And there is frustrated lust in her condemnation of her fellow townspeople that turns self-serving duplicity into self-deluding mania.
Yet Ms. Bettis seems almost asexual here with her frozen rigid postures and baleful glances. (For some reason, I kept thinking of Edward Gorey's ''Uninvited Guest.'')
Abigail is, crucially, the source of Proctor's guilt and of his strained relations with his wife. But since Ms. Linney is such a dish even in her Puritan severity, it's hard to imagine why Mr. Neeson would ever have strayed. And when Abby leads her impressionable friends in scenes of spiritual seizure, which should capture the toxic bloom of young girls in flower, the effect is about as chilling as a high school gym routine.
As the conflicted Reverend John Hale, John Benjamin Hickey declaims Mr. Miller's pseudo-period language as if it were Shakespeare. But he exudes a scholarly sincerity that at least makes sense of his character's later change of heart. And the inexhaustible Brian Murray finds intriguing notes of anxiety as well as the usual malevolent sternness in Deputy Governor Danforth, who presides over the trials.
It's a relief when Proctor and Danforth finally face off in the courtroom scene, because you feel that at last Mr. Neeson has a worthy adversary, someone whose behavior justifies his own. Mr. Neeson is splendid here as Proctor assumes the unaccustomed role of lawyer, finding his tongue with equal awkwardness and purposefulness.
His towering, muscular frame suggests both heroic stature and rustic discomfort. And Mr. Neeson brings an unexpected, boyish poignancy to the famous moment in which Proctor, bruised and crippled from imprisonment, refuses to name names to save his life. Mr. Neeson, his face crumpled like a small child about to cry, makes it clear that Proctor's decision is as painful as it is necessary.
It is when Mr. Neeson and Ms. Linney share the stage that this ''Crucible'' runs the kind of emotional temperature that leaves you weak. Mr. Neeson is an insistently, restlessly physical presence. Ms. Linney spends much of her performance stock-still, hands clasped, telegraphing a spectrum of feelings with small, amazingly articulate shifts in expression and posture.
You never stop sensing the warmth than runs between them, even when they are at loggerheads. In the second act, set in the Proctor home, they manage to paint a remarkably complete portrait of a marriage, vivid in its telling domestic details.
Watch as Proctor, returned from the fields, defiantly splashes his naked torso with water from a basin, a cry for attention from the wife he believes still judges him harshly. Note Elizabeth's fleeting, radiant smile of pleasure when Proctor compliments her cooking or her pointed, reproving delivery of the simple words, ''Adultery, John,'' as her husband struggles through a recitation of the Ten Commandments.
These are, without doubt, people with a bedrock affinity that overrides all resentment. When they are reunited in the evening's concluding scene with the knowledge that they may soon be separated forever, you feel a rush of anger and true horror for the events that have brought them to this point.
Mr. Eyre has provided a noisy symbolic climax (borrowed from Jonathan Kent's production of ''Medea'') to bring down the curtain. But it's that last, tragically knowing glance between Proctor and Elizabeth -- eloquent with the consciousness of a shared future that will never be -- that most fully measures the damage of the nightmare that was Salem in 1692.
It's fire and brimstone time at the Virginia Theater, where Richard Eyre's dark, stark and moralistic production of "The Crucible" is thundering across the stage nightly. It could be argued that another layer of moralism is precisely what Arthur Miller's 1952 play about the Salem witch trials doesn't need, but Eyre's production has an earnest integrity to the text that firmly accentuates the play's powerful aspects, even if it fails to elide problematic ones. The production is anchored by admirable performances in roles large and small, in particular a faultless, emotionally fertile one from Liam Neeson as John Proctor, the honorable farmer whose life is destroyed by the forces of hysteria and venality clothed as righteousness.
Tim Hatley's massive wooden sets create a brooding, ominous atmosphere. They rise to the considerable height of the Virginia Theater proscenium and turn the large stage into spaces alternately isolating and claustrophobic; the only glimpse of nature is a sliver of bucolic New England countryside seen briefly through the open door of Proctor's farmhouse. Paul Gallo's lighting slashes across the stage with an unyielding forcefulness akin to the portentous clangings of Scott Myers' sound design. This is not a place, in short, in which you expect to find the angels of justice and mercy gamboling merrily about.
The blueprint for Eyre's approach is to be found in Miller's play, a long, strongly voiced indictment of human corruptibility and the dangers of falling in line behind leaders who prefer convenient orthodoxies to the more complicated truth. Miller was writing with a fervent point to make in 1953, when the Red Scare was gaining dangerous momentum. He was trying to shake his audiences into an awareness of the gathering storm and its threat to the rights of the individual enshrined in the Constitution.
Almost half a century later, that context is history, and yet the polemical fierceness of the writing remains embedded in the text, which unfolds with such heat, it often plays like a melodrama with social and political overtones. The strict delineation of guilt and innocence in the primary characters leaves little room for nuance, for example, with the noble Proctor (adultery notwithstanding) and his good wife allied with a couple of ornery townsfolk against the forces of self-righteousness serving self-interest.
Miller was certainly an intelligent analyst of the ways in which ignorance, fear and envy can be dressed up in the clothes of piety and thereby given moral authority and worldly power. And watching this process taking place can be a harrowing experience, as it often is in this terrifically acted production, which boasts a cast that manages to outnumber the parade of above-the-title producers.
But the triumph of unalloyed evil over unalloyed good is not a spectacle that can be comfortably stretched over three hours of drama and still retain its fascination. Eventually, exhaustion sets in: This may be history in all its ugliness, but that does not make it perfect theater. The vehemence of Miller's writing eventually saps some of its dramatic effectiveness.
This is by no means due to a lack of conviction or skill on the part of the evening's performers. In his thoughtful performance as Proctor, the effortlessly charismatic Neeson subtly delineates a man's moral evolution, as Proctor moves from casual scorn for the proceedings to outrage to soul-stricken despair as his attempts to fight for justice are systematically denied and then used against him. The play's last scene, in which Proctor signs and then renounces his confession, is extraordinarily moving, as we watch a beaten and bewildered many first forfeit and then regain his moral bearings. Perhaps the finest aspect of Neeson's performance is its admirable restraint: He never insists on Proctor's nobility, even when Miller hands him the material for that kind of grandstanding; he accentuates instead the man's bewildered, increasingly desperate attempts to avoid his martyrdom. Laura Linney gives a likewise restrained but deeply felt performance as Elizabeth, whose integrity is inextricably and tragically lined to strict control of her emotions.
Among the smaller roles, the Tituba of Patrice Johnson makes a searing impression in the play's first scene, when this powerless servant is forced to fabricate fantastical tales of trafficking with the devil to save her skin. Angela Bettis has a furtive, scary self-possession as Abigail Williams, the comely young woman who points the finger of demonic frolicking at Elizabeth out of sexual jealousy. As the Proctors' servant Mary Warren, Jennifer Carpenter touchingly illustrates how a shallow but essentially good girl's heart can be manipulated in the service of destruction by a stronger one.
The scene in which Mary tries to recant her testimony and is cowed when her former cohorts turn their accusations against her is creepy and powerful -- but it is also a bit exasperating. Miller's play is a troublesome one for contemporary audiences, who can sometimes be heard snorting at the gullibility -- or the outright mendacity -- of the authorities rendering judgment in these trials (does no one get suspicious when Abigail's itchy finger of accusation falls on her latest accuser?).
These include Deputy Governor Danforth, played by Brian Murray, and the Reverend Parris, played by Christopher Evan Welch. Murray's Danforth is such a flagrantly unctuous hypocrite that some of his more high-handed protestations -- "The pure in heart need no lawyer," for instance -- are greeted with guffaws. An actor of firm gravity might have made Danforth into a figure of more ambiguity: a deluded man but one driven by real convictions. And Welch's Parris, credibly a man on the verge of hysteria in the play's opening scene, has almost resorted to mustache-twirling by the time of the trials.
Casting that went against the poisonous grain of these characters might have rectified some of the problem (and it might have been wise to clothe Danforth in something other than a veritable witch's cape and hat in the last scene), but really the fault is in the structure of the play, which rubs our noses in the uprightness of Proctor and the nefariousness of his accusers to such a degree that at times the proceedings lose the power to move, anger and terrify us and instead merely begin to irritate. (John Benjamin Hickey gives a solid performance as the Reverend Hale, the only figure to move from black to white, but the character is written rather patly.)
That's a painful deficiency, because certainly the lessons of the play are still relevant -- indeed ever-relevant. The uproar surrounding Bill Maher's comments relating to the terrorist attacks, for example, instantly springs to mind as we watch Proctor and his allies being punished for daring to question the authority of the tribunal, or voicing their disbelief in the existence of witches. And references to "the voice of heaven speaking through the children" can't help but remind you of the dismayingly similar hysteria surrounding the supposed epidemic of Satanic child abuse several years back, which destroyed the lives of many teachers and caretakers.
But theater is always in danger of forsaking the power to affect us deeply when we can neatly transcribe the points being made, even if they fuel lively post-theater discussion. This production honors both the letter and the spirit of Miller's text -- notwithstanding a misguided calamitous final coup de theatre -- but there's a prickly irony in the result: A play about the dangers of hysteria that feeds on doctrinaire religion feels uncomfortably like a very long, very eloquent sermon.