Witch Hunt 

As usual, The Crucible is right on time.

Arthur Miller's The Crucible was only a modest success when it was first produced in 1953, but its reputation grew quickly, and by the end of the decade, it was a certifiable classic.

The "red scare" was in full bloom when it opened. Writers, actors, and directors were denied employment because of alleged sympathies to Communist causes. And stage and film director Elia Kazan had become the most hated genius in the entertainment industry for handing over another list of prominent artists to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Miller, who had spent some time in Salem, Massachusetts, researching the city's infamous witch hunts, had caught hold of a powerful and enduring metaphor.

The Crucible has since become the celebrated American playwright's most frequently performed work, topping the immensely moving All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, which is widely regarded as Miller's masterpiece. Although the work is unnecessarily long, the Harrell Theatre's admirable, if uneven, production is a testament to the play's staying power.

The drive from downtown Memphis to Collierville always takes longer than I think it does, and having not seen a production of The Crucible in several years, I spent much of the 40-minute journey to the Harrell Theatre trying to determine all the ways in which this story, so closely identified with a specific cultural moment, might still be relevant today.

On the passenger's seat next to me there was a newspaper from the previous week devoting a significant portion of the front page to Tiger Woods' public acknowledgment of his sexual indiscretions. On top of the newspaper there was a small package of photographs from Memphis' first Tea Party, an event where locals wrapped themselves in flags, waved Bibles, and worked themselves into such a frenzy they thought they saw socialists everywhere. Tom Waits' "Rains on Me" from the Free the West Memphis 3 CD blared over my speakers, reminding me that the witch hunt depicted in The Crucible has grown into something more than a metaphor. It was a fairly depressing trip, and things only got worse when the lights at the Harrell went down.

Director Amy Hanford takes a literal, no-frills approach to Miller's story about a group of young Puritan girls who, after being caught dancing in the woods near Salem, protect themselves by accusing other townspeople of witchcraft. In this Crucible, the good guys are all a little too good, while the baddies are black-hats all around, snarling and shouting their lines like the devil's own. Perhaps the playwright owns some of the blame for this, but it's a director's job to remind the pious judges, self-serving ministers, and greedy land barons that they are good people who honestly believe they are doing the Lord's work.

Justin Asher, for example, is a commanding, positively regal presence as Deputy-Governor Danforth, but a man who wields so much power has no need to bark and growl so often.

Conversely, Brian Everson is an extremely likable John Proctor but too grounded in basic goodness. Proctor, The Crucible's chief protagonist, has a violent temper and struggles with guilt over past indiscretions and also with his lingering sexual urges. A bit more ambiguity could have kept this Crucible from becoming tedious in the latter half of the second act.

It's only been a year and a half since Emily Chateau moved from Michigan to Memphis, but with seven shows under her belt, she's quickly asserted herself as a major player on the local theater scene. Chateau is atypically stiff but no less excellent here as Elizabeth Proctor, John's sickly wife and the source of his strength.

She's a perfectly upright foil for Karrah Fleshman who plays Abigail Williams, John's teen-age lover, as a naturally predatory product of her repressive environment. There is an innocence that underlies all of Abigail's manipulations and her easy willingness to send half the town to the gallows if that's what it takes to have her way. It's a deceptively risky performance from an exciting young actor who seems to be finding her own unique voice.

It rained all the way home from Collierville, turning the 40-minute drive into something closer to an hour. But the time passed quickly, because I couldn't stop thinking about how upsettingly current The Crucible still is. And this may be my urban prejudice talking, but even in 2010 — perhaps especially in 2010 — it seems like a particularly brave choice of material for a suburban community playhouse best known for its production of shows like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

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