Roundabout Theatre Offers a Stark, `Crucible'

Miller's tragic drama of Salem witchcraft trials gets its first New York staging in 20 years. THEATER: REVIEW

THE CRUCIBLE Play by Arthur Miller. Directed by Gerald Freedman. At the Roundabout through April 29. ALTHOUGH it is Arthur Miller's most-produced play, ``The Crucible'' hasn't received a major New York City production for almost 20 years. The Roundabout Theatre Company has remedied the situation with a stark and powerful revival of the tragic drama based on the Salem, Massachusetts, witch trials of the late 17th century.

The action begins in the spring of 1692 as the Reverend Parris (Noble Shropshire) grapples with the discovery that his daughter Betty (Julia Gibson) appears to have been possessed by the devil.

The tragedy is mainly concerned, however, with the domestic crisis facing free-thinking farmer John Proctor (Randle Mell) and his frail but resolute wife, Elizabeth (Harriet Harris). Their relationship has been strained by Proctor's passing infidelity with Abigail Williams (Justine Bateman), the orphaned servant girl whom Elizabeth subsequently discharged.

In his autobiography, ``Timebends,'' Miller wrote that the play's center was ``the breakdown of the Proctor marriage and Abigail Williams's determination to get Elizabeth murdered so that she could have John...'' Later on, the playwright noted that ``the tyranny of teen-agers'' in ``The Crucible'' compared with the brutal behavior of the young Red Guards in latter-day Communist China.

In the crucial climax to the Salem ecclesiastical hearing, Abigail succeeds in destroying both John and the innocent Elizabeth Proctor. Meanwhile, the uncontrollable behavior of the ``possessed'' teen-agers illustrates their reign of terror.

``The Crucible'' also touches on a variety of the social, economic, and class phenomena that figured in the Salem events: the land disputes, litigation, church factionalism, and demand for conformity (``a person is either for this court or against it''). Miller's large cross-section of Salemites articulate the counterpointing themes in prevailingly colloquial rather than didactic terms.

Within the plain wooden walls of Christopher M. Barreca's austerely furnished setting, director Gerald Freedman brings out the individualism of these seemingly homogeneous colonials.

Mr. Mell and Miss Harris complement each other admirably in the contrasted roles of John and Elizabeth. Aided by the Reverend Parris, implacable Judge Hathorne (Robert Donley) dominates the hearings. John Hale (William Leach), the clergyman engaged to serve as enlightened investigator, ultimately resigns in horror from the witch hunt.

Although Miss Bateman (of TV's ``Family Ties,'' making her New York stage debut) seems a rather mature Abigail, there is no mistaking the girl's simmering hostility and capacity for vengeance. Vicki Lewis makes Mary Warren's dilemma as a would-be truth- teller a heart-rending ordeal.

Among the more conspicuous members of a splendid cast are Ruth Nelson (Rebecca Nurse), Maury Cooper (Giles Corey), Hazel J. Medina (Tituba), and Neil Vipond (Deputy Governor Danforth). The production has been costumed in 17th-century New England style by Jeanne Button.

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