For some, the mention of Arthur Miller’s 1953 play “The Crucible” will call to mind the halting voices of timid teenagers reciting Miller’s lines in high school English class.
For others, it recalls a dark period in American history, when neighbor turned against neighbor amid a growing tide of anti-communist paranoia.
And for others still, its unmistakable McCarthy-era message about the distortion of truth and the irrational transfer of blame to invisible enemies seems a prescient prediction of the current political moment.
All these connections come flickering to light in Robert Waterhouse’s ambitious if underbaked production of the play, which runs through Nov. 26 in the Kavinoky Theatre. Waterhouse directed Miller’s superior play “A View From the Bridge,” about xenophobia in the age of McCarthy, during the Kavinoky's last season.
“The Crucible,” for those who nodded off back in 10th grade (you’re forgiven), takes on the cautionary tale of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. It is as chilling an American horror story as anything Ryan Murphy could invent. It charts the blossoming of irrational paranoia, accelerated by characters who allow their rage and blind faith to overwhelm their innate intelligence.
The exceptions to this are its central characters, Goody Proctor (Aleks Malejs) and her husband John (Adriano Gatto), two honest and virtuous figures fighting in vain against the fog of ignorance that encircles them.
As Goody Proctor, Malejs is the picture of moral rectitude, her very posture indicating her character’s titanium backbone. But even in her most sobering speeches, we see flickers of her deep love for her flawed husband like faraway flashes of lightning .
Gatto, alternately brash and emotionally exhausted, gives a deeply sensitive performance inflected with idiosyncratic humor and aching pathos in perfect balance.
The remainder of the large cast, with a few exceptions (Peter Palmisano, Gerry Maher and Adam Yellen among others) is not up to the same level. This has the effect of exacerbating an existing problem in Miller’s script: the disconnect between the Proctors’ nuanced story and the comparatively one-note emotional trauma that surrounds it.
Owing mostly to Miller’s single-minded script but also to a lack of subtlety in some central performances, the production has only two settings: lachrymose and histrionic. It spends too little time in the fertile grey area between these emotional extremes, and sometimes turns tedious in the hands of an uneven cast.
The production design by David King, with projections by Brian Milbrand, adds a thick layer of unease to proceedings that are uneasy to begin with.
Milbrand’s projections of dark deeds and leafless trees, especially in the play’s opening scene, too often distract from the performances -- even if some of the performances benefit from the distraction. Unlike his graceful and largely unobtrusive work in "Grounded," Milbrand’s work here sometimes over-asserts itself, like a piece of incidental music that accidentally drowns out the cast.
There is no doubt about the enduring power of "The Crucible" to force our gazes inward, to unmask our fears and flaws as well as those of people in power. In even with such a crude delivery system, Miller's chilling tale strikes a deep and lasting chord.
2.5 stars (out of four)
Runs through Nov. 26 in the Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Ave. Tickets are $438 to $42. Call 829-7668 or visit kavinokytheatre.com.