Theater critic

“The Crucible” at Olney Theatre Center, with Scott Parkinson (the Rev. John Hale), Lilian Oben (Tituba) and Michael Russotto (the Rev. Parris). (Stan Barouh)

“The Crucible” is one of America’s great protest plays, and Eleanor Holdridge is letting it roar. There is nothing timid about the performance, from the big, ­abstract set suggesting blazing woods to the epic-scaled, ­edge-of-hysteria acting.

If you have any inclination to revisit Arthur Miller’s McCarthy-era parable, see this. Holdridge’s cast taps into the drama’s fear and fury from the moment Michael Russotto enters as the Rev. Parris, freaked out that the girls in Salem were caught dancing (maybe naked) in the woods. Russotto does not condescend to the character — he is worried and slightly panicked, not hyper-righteous — and the show quickly fills with actors fluent in Miller’s odd, formal version of Puritan New England speech.

The Proctors are especially good, in both senses. Chris Genebach is tormented as the man who betrayed his wife with young Abigail Williams (a perfectly cast Dani Stoller, who casts a seductive eye at Proctor and subtly ringleads the “possessed” girls). Rachel Zampelli is calm and heartbreaking as Elizabeth Proctor; the complexity of this marriage always feels real as Genebach and Zampelli argue out their characters’ failings and then try to defend themselves against the witch hunt.

The show looks like 1692 before intermission, but Andrew R. Cohen’s set gets a modern edge for the second half, with the court and jail scenes unfolding in front of tall glass walls and under fluorescent lights. It works: The look isn’t jarring, and the characters remain in Sarah Cubbage’s late-17th-century costumes.

And anyway, there’s no upstaging the acting. Miller was dramatizing a country ablaze, and that’s how the cast plays it. The passions are at full boil, yet the actors are clear thinkers: You hear the logic and the bent reasoning, and you feel the vise clamping down as church and state convene their kangaroo court.

Scott Parkinson plays the uncertain Rev. Hale with compelling concern, and Paul Morella performs with the force of a judge’s gavel as the imperious Deputy Gov. Danforth, twirling his cape and cross-examining Salem’s suddenly hapless citizens with a heady combination of intellect and zeal. Sharp turns are also delivered by Brigid Cleary as the unimpeachable Rebecca Nurse, Jessica Lefkow as the bitter Ann Putnam (who has had seven stillborn children), Lilian Oben as the terrified accused slave Tituba, Craig MacDonald as the likably litigious old man Giles Corey and Miranda Rizzolo as Mary Warren, the girl who tries to resist Abigail’s scheme.


Iyona Blake, Susan Derry, Catherine Purcell and Florence Lacey (center) in Creative Cauldron's "Witch." (Keith Waters Kx Photography)
Seven women demonized

Rebecca Nurse turns out to be a character in the new Matt Conner-Stephen Gregory Smith musical “Witch,” which coincidentally has opened at the intimate Creative Cauldron. Set during the 2017 Women’s March, the show looks at seven women staging a consciousness-raising act about women demonized across the centuries.

That allows for songs about Joan of Arc, Nurse, and the small cluster of mothers and daughters devising this act of resistance. It’s not always fleshed out; for instance, Nurse’s song, “Innocent,” gets a lovely melody (Conner writes the music) but no real lyrical development (Conner and Smith write the lyrics).

It’s complicated as the modern characters overlap with some of the historical figures they sing about. Maggie, more or less the central character, sings about Margaret Hamilton, trapped by her image as the Wicked Witch in “The Wizard of Oz,” and the song has a beautiful, haunting refrain: “What a world, what a world.” A woman named Molly sings about Moll Dyer, a late-17th-century-Maryland woman chased out of town as a witch; the song has a lovely bluegrass lilt accompanied by the instrumental trio of keyboards, percussion and fiddle.

Like “The Crucible,” “Witch” has a terrific cast. Broadway ­veteran Florence Lacey (of the Conner-Smith musical “Kaleidoscope” last year) plays the eldest of the seven women; Susan Derry, Iyona Blake and Catherine Purcell are the mothers, and Arianna Vargas, Sophia Manicone and ­Samaria Dellorso play the school-age kids. They are all fine singers giving this promising piece — which concludes with a catchy pop hook to the phrase “Nevertheless, she persisted” — a good hearing.

The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Directed by Eleanor Holdridge. About 3 hours. Through May 20 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, Md. $49-$74. 301-924-3400 or olneytheatre.org.

Witch Music and lyrics by Matt Conner; book and lyrics by Stephen Gregory Smith. Directed by Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith. About 70 minutes. Through May 6 at Creative Cauldron, 410 S. Maple St., Falls Church, Va. $30. 703-436-9948 or creativecauldron.org.