By Joseph Hurley
THE CRUCIBLE, by Arthur Miller. Directed by Richard Eyre. Starring Liam Neeson and Laura Linney. At the Virginia Theatre, 245 West 52nd St., NYC.
Not often, but once in a while, an actor and a role come together with a force and an intensity that combine to produce something resembling spontaneous combustion.
Something of the sort is taking place with Liam Neeson’s powerhouse performance in director Richard Eyre’s dazzling and revelatory new production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” first seen in New York on Jan. 22, 1953.
Forty-nine years ago, in the sad, suspicious heart of the McCarthy Era, the play was widely interpreted as an outcry against the fear and red-baiting that had gripped the country, ruining lives and innumerable careers, many of them in the theater and particularly in the motion picture industry.
In that first production, when the late Arthur Kennedy, playing the earnest, uneducated Massachusetts farmer, John Proctor, in the play’s second act, asked the question, “Is the accuser always holy now?” the audience roared in response.
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In Eyre’s galvanic new staging, most of the lines that draw audible reactions from the house are heard in Act 3, when Deputy Governor Danforth, played here by Brian Murray, questions the need for and usefulness of lawyers. “An honest man,” says Danforth, “needs no lawyer,” and the audience howls.
“The Crucible,” said to be playwright Miller’s most produced work, surpassing in stagings around the world even “Death of a Salesman,” can now best be viewed as an earnest, deeply thoughtful meditation on a lamentable series of happenings in Salem, Mass., in and around the year 1692.
The part of Proctor has attracted an impressive string of actors, starting with the aforementioned Kennedy, and then E.G. Marshall, who originally played Reverend John Hale and then moved into the leading role a few months into the play’s Broadway run. George C. Scott played it on TV, Daniel Day Lewis was Proctor in Nicholas Hytner’s recent movie version, and, in 1957, there was a peculiar French version, “The Witches of Salem,” in which Yves Montand played the part with a screenplay by Jean-Paul Sartre. Even Charlton Heston played it in Los Angeles.
Some plays seem to alter with the passage of time and attendant shifts in morals, manners and attitudes, to say nothing of fluctuations in the political climate. Few dramas, however, seem quite as susceptible to the winds of change of “The Crucible” does.
If Elizabeth Proctor, the farmer’s intellectually superior, but physically and perhaps psychologically fragile wife, played now with a kind of eloquent stillness that approaches outright passivity by Laura Linney, is cast with an actress of overriding power, as was the case when the late Coleen Dewhurst took on the role, the entire play can tilt in her direction, blurring the focus of what seems obviously to have been Miller’s intentions.
It is, in fact, Goody Proctor’s weakness and “sickness,” accompanied by a pronounced diminution in the couple’s sexual activity, implicit in the text, which, a little before the start of the play’s action, had driven John Proctor, albeit briefly, into the open arms of a vengeful, possibly deranged Salem teenager, Abigail Williams, played with a fine neurotic edge in Eyre’s almost staggering ambitious new interpretation by Angela Bettis.
Brian Murray, an actor who sometimes seems to be working on several city stages at the same time, has inherited the role of the rigidly authoritarian Danforth, played originally by the unforgettable Walter Hampden, and, only a few seasons ago, by the sadly undervalued Fritz Weaver.
Murray, so recently seen to great advantage in the Atlantic Theater Company’s production of “Hobson’s Choice,” never quite brings to the role of the Massachusetts Colony official the Jehovah-like authority and stony self-confidence that characterized Weaver’s interpretation and especially that of the great Hampden.
John Benjamin Hickey, as the ultimately reasonable Rev. Hale brings light, clarity and intelligence to the role.
Neeson’s John Proctor, above everything, so toweringly dominates the new staging that it seems almost to constitute a thorough reinvestigation of the text, much in the way that Brian Dennehy’s splendid Willy Loman did a few seasons ago in director Robert Falls’s sterling Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman.”
Unlike Falls’s “Salesman,” Eyre’s “Crucible” is not in an ideal theater. The Virginia, often as not the home of musicals, is vast enough to smother the average text and dwarf most ordinary actors.
Fortunately, “The Crucible,” with its cast of 22 actors plus one offstage voice, comes equipped with a sort of built-in vastness of its own. So, for that matter, does Neeson, a veritable sequoia of an actor, looming over the rest of Eyre’s cast and coming close to making designer Tim Hatley’s huge, monochromatic set seem almost intimate. But not quite.
Hatley’s enormous, somewhat impressionistic scenery, probably designed as an accommodation to the unaccommodating reach of the stage space, often resembles bridge architecture, particularly when, in full view of the audience, Act I yields to Act II.
The pitched roof of the play’s first segment, set in “a small upper bedroom in the home of Reverend Samuel Parris,” splits and makes way for “the common room of John Proctor’s house.” As the initial unit breaks apart into halves that rise on either side of the stage, there probably isn’t an individual in the audience who isn’t reminded of a drawbridge lifting to permit the passage of a larger-than-average vessel.
Actor Neeson, himself most definitely a “larger-than-average vessel,” somehow manages to cut Hatley’s intimidating scenic designs down to habitable human scale. Neeson’s Proctor is a sensible, honorable, no-nonsense sort of individual, so concerned with making his meagre patch of land yield a reasonable crop that, from time to time, he commits the nearly unpardonable offense of “ploughing on Sundays.”
Successfully married to an intellectually adroit woman whose sense of justice could, in his words, “freeze beer,” Proctor seems never to have defined the world in terms of moral right and wrong until his mate is implicated in the witchcraft hysteria that gripped Salem in the final years of the 17th century.
Fine as many of the actors who played John Proctor in the past have been, Neeson seems to have redefined him along resoundingly heroic lines of the sort generally associated with popular American mythology, embracing names such as Paul Bunyan and John Henry.
Neeson’s amazing achievement, supported by a generally solid acting aggregation, serves to refocus and clarify not just the character of John Proctor, but the play itself, solidifying its claim to stand confidently alongside “Death of a Salesman” as the greatest peaks in the long career of the redoubtable Arthur Miller.
Not so incidentally, the new production of “The Crucible,” which lists a phalanx of some 18 separate and distinct producers, is dedicated to the memory of the playwright’s wife, the celebrated photographer Inge Morath, who died during the play’s rehearsal period.
— Joseph Hurley