Great plays are elastic. They expand to accommodate the temper and tone of an age for which they were not necessarily written. Take Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," for example.
McCarthyism was very much on everyone's mind when the play was first produced on Broadway in 1953. Although it chronicled the witch hunts that rocked Salem, Mass., in the late 17th century, no one mistook the work for historical drama. The furor with which Puritan judges, tracking down the Devil's henchmen in their midst, urged a terrified citizenry to "name names" was alive and well in Washington, where a senator from Wisconsin pressed a similarly zealous course.
Joseph McCarthy has long since been discredited. But "The Crucible," which opened last night at Arena Stage, is no less potent for that. The object of mass hysteria may change over the years, but the mechanics remain terrifyingly constant. Where once "The Crucible" reverberated with all the emotions triggered by the red scare, it now is remarkably descriptive of the panic engendered by the AIDS crisis and the fanatical need of some to ascribe blame for the scourge, root out scapegoats and cleanse society.
Moreover, Miller's prosecutorial judges, brandishing the Bible and invoking the Lord's will, cannot fail to evoke their latter-day descendants, who use the television screen as a courtroom. Then, as now, ignorance is the real enemy, but self-righteousness, Miller warns us, has always been a mighty deterrent to the truth.
No one is more self-righteous than Deputy Governor Danforth, played by Stanley Anderson with a ferocity that emanates like laser beams from his dark, narrow eyes. He has been summoned to Salem to restore order to a town in the grip of collective insanity. Unyielding, eager to believe only what he wants to believe -- including his own lofty authority -- he has the coldness of statutes graven in granite. And his coldness merely serves to fan the flames of irrationality.
Make whatever present-day analogies you will (and you will). Arena's stunning production, staged with uncompromising intelligence by Zelda Fichandler, burrows deep into the spectator's conscience. It is scrupulously faithful to the Spartan look and emotional rigor of Puritan New England. But the honesty of the performances and the clarity of Fichandler's direction are such that the play seems to be fixing us all in the eye and asking us what we're going to do about equivalent matters.
The drama starts out as a brush fire that could be easily extinguished if so many people weren't intent on screaming "Fire!" Young Abigail Williams (Heather Ehlers) and her girlfriends have been caught dancing in the woods to the chants of Tituba, a slave (Frances Foster). To avoid punishment in the strict religious community, Abigail plants the suggestion that their youthful indiscretions were really Satan's doing. Reverend Samuel Parris (Henry Strozier), a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher, seizes the bait, and the conflagration spreads.
Suddenly, everything becomes evidence that witches are afoot -- an infant dying in childbirth, a stomach pain, a cold breath of air, even the demise of a pig that perished only because its owner neglected to feed it. Logic is helpless to turn back the tide. It is not long before John and Elizabeth Proctor, a plain-speaking farm couple, find themselves summoned for questioning.
They are pious, hard-working folk. But John has his Achilles' heel -- in a moment of weakness, he was lured from his marriage vows by the conniving Abigail -- and he will pay for it. While the prosecutors claim that they are merely ridding society of evil, far more insidious motives are at work: greed, a lust for power, spite and the enduring covetousness of men for their neighbors' belongings.
Fichandler and a superb cast delineate all the petty and conflicting forces that come together to make an inquisition. It would be easy to turn this into a black-and-white conflict. There are moments, in fact, when you will have to restrain the urge to hiss Strozier's Reverend Parris -- as tenacious in his intolerance as a bulldog who's sunk his teeth into the mailman's leg. And Ehlers plays the calculating innocent so well your palms will itch to give her a good slapping.
But the production won't settle for a blanket condemnation of hysterics and hypocrites. It wants to show us how they go about their invidious business and convince themselves that they are engaged in a worthy crusade. Fichandler has a healthy respect for their power and she allows them every opportunity to state their nefarious case.
By the same token, she has resisted the impulse to make martyrs out of their victims. Robert Westenberg's aura of basic decency makes him the right actor to play Proctor. But his struggle to maintain his integrity comes with a terrible effort. Nothing about the performance is noble. Yet it casts a noble shadow.
Heroism, Westenberg deftly suggests, is made up of tiny steps, hesitations, recurring doubts and maybe, in the end, a simple inability to disappoint one's fellow man. The performance is muscular, graceful and triumphantly human. As his stern wife, Randy Danson discovers in prison the compassion that has eluded her under her own roof. And Tom Hewitt nicely negotiates the transitions that take Reverend John Hale from a position of moral certainty to one of horrified protest, as the ravages of persecution mount before his disbelieving eyes.
There really isn't an unsure performance in the large cast -- even the supernumeraries suggest they have ongoing lives of their own. The actors sit dutifully on pews surrounding the stage, only to hurtle themselves into the fray with breathless -- not to say demonic -- urgency, when the time comes. Douglas Stein has covered the acting area with thick wooden planking (notice how it amplifies the forbidding sound of footsteps) and furnished it with heavy tables and upright chairs, attesting to Puritan sobriety.
At first, you may wonder why he has also suspended thick windows between the audience and the actors. Doesn't Fichandler know they partially block our view? Of course she does. The explanation, I think, is simple, but telling.
At the start of "The Crucible," we are outsiders, looking in. The threat of the witch hunt is remote; its full implications are yet to be felt. We are safe, behind panes of protective glass.
But no one is safe from hysteria. Every one of us can be drawn into the crucible. By the time that horrible truth starts to make itself felt, the windows have been raised up above eye level where they no longer constitute an obstruction. There is nothing to protect us from the proliferating madness onstage but the small still voice of reason stirring in our heads.
Will we be among those, Arena asks in this electrifying production, who speak up the next time witches are sighted?
The Crucible, by Arthur Miller. Directed by Zelda Fichandler. Sets, Douglas Stein; lighting, Allen Lee Hughes; costumes, Marjorie Slaiman. With Henry Strozier, Frances Foster, Heather Ehlers, Tana Hicken, Terrence Currier, Marissa Copeland, Robert Westenberg, Halo Wines, Mark Hammer, Tom Hewitt, Randy Danson, Stanley Anderson. At Arena Stage through July 12.