Liam Neeson and Laura Linney in The Crucible(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Liam Neeson and Laura Linney in The Crucible
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
When Liam Neeson appeared in the Roundabout's 1992 revival of Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie, he made his entrance by hoisting himself onto a dock from an unseen body of water. As he rose--slick, bare-chested and six-foot-something tall--he seemed to be something primeval, shape-shifting before the audience's eyes, anticipating the emergence and submergence of mythic figures in Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses. Neeson's first appearance as the farmer John Proctor in Richard Eyre's meaty interpretation of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, isn't nearly as eye-popping: He walks up a flight of below-stage stairs into a common-room. But, in the next scene, he strips off the shirt he's worn while executing his daily chores, then pours water from a pitcher into a bowl and douses himself liberally.

Once again, a director has chosen to present Neeson as a naked force of nature. The message is that this is a man-mountain of strength. Neeson's spectacular physique shows how monumental the destruction of a good man can be; it is used to make the point that (in certain situations) the larger the man (or the idea), the more convenient he or it is as a target. Indeed, Neeson's scale seems to have dictated the size of the entire production. Tim Hatley's magnificent wooden-slats set, rising up into the fly space like a barn morphing into a cathedral, seems to be the only thing capable of containing Neeson's explosive presence.

Director Eyre has matched his Crucible to Neeson, which means that he isn't interested in subtleties so much as in brandishing larger-than-life emotions. In this, he takes his cue not only from Neeson's hulking precense but also from the playwright's outrage: The Crucible was written in 1952 in reaction to the House Un-American Activities Committee and its treatment of witnesses, including Miller himself. The author found the Salem witch hunts to be an almost perfect allegory for the situation.

Before the action of The Crucible begins, John Proctor has blemished his scrupulous reputation by dallying with Abigail Williams (Angela Bettis), a housemaid whom Proctor's wife Elizabeth (Laura Linney) then dismisses. The vengeful Abigail realizes that she can get satisfaction by including Elizabeth with other Salem women already fingered as Devil worshipers by a clutch of young girls in the community. Prone to peer pressure, the adolescents have hit on the witch ploy in order to save face: They'd been caught cavorting wildly in neighboring woods and have no other excuse for their high spirits in a society that reviles such abandon.

Proctor's attempt to liberate his wife involves a girl named Mary Warren (Jennifer Carpenter) who had initially backed her friends but admitted when cornered that she was lying. Although Deputy Governor Danforth (Brian Murray) is willing to hear Mary's testimony, the other girls turn on her, pretending that Mary's escaped spirit is threatening them. Eventually, Proctor is told that he can save the righteous Elizabeth if he recants his position and confirms, to the satisfaction of Danforth and the town, his belief in the Devil and witchcraft.

Written at fever-pitch, The Crucible is so successful as an oblique attack on McCarthyism that it's often associated exclusively with that ignominious period; but, as time goes by it is clear that the play deals with many other issues. At its core, it is also about marriage, infidelity, and loyalty. Elizabeth, understanding that her husband is an upright man, still has trouble forgiving him for his affair and realizes too late that she, herself, should perhaps request forgiveness. The Crucible is also about the wages of thwarted sexuality, as Miller scrapes away at the Victorian-like veneer of the 1950's. Another theme (and a hot topic nowadays) is the cruelty of young girls towards one another. Although Miller's subject is no laughing matter, he's having something of an up-his-sleeve laugh by using caterwauling girls to represent the back-stabbing, finger-pointing HUAC figures.

Another moment from The Crucible(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Another moment from The Crucible
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
All of these ideas aside, Eyre's motivation is simply to get a fervent and persuasive play on its feet, and he's done so with great authority. Since the work is about hysteria, it can appear to invite a hysterical treatment. In the first two of Miller's four scenes, the bellowing does intermittently get out of hand, raising the possibility that there will be nowhere to go later on. Luckily, the sameness that affects the early segments disappears in the second half. Taking advantage of Miller's carefully constructed dramatic shifts, Eyre stages this portion of the play--particularly the vestry scene where Proctor hauls in the repentant Mary--as if it were a Shakespearean tragedy. The final scene, however, is biblical: Proctor, chained and with hair clipped short, drags himself into a prison anteroom. Again he comes up from below the stage, this time as a shackled Samson. And when he leaves to face his fate, Eyre and his designers cleverly reiterate that analogy.

Many of Eyre's actors behave as if they're in a melodrama (and, to some extent, they are). Angela Bettis and Jennifer Carpenter are the most prominent of the over-the-toppers, their keening and arm-waving responsible for bringing out the play's most horrific moments. Brian Murray is a stentorian Danforth, his piercing dictums clearing the air the way Drano clears drain pipes. In Hatley's appropriate costumes, Broadway and Off-Broadway veterans Helen Stenborg, Tom Aldredge, Henry Stram, John Benjamin Hickey, and Christopher Evan Welch are among those possessed by sometimes good, sometimes bad, but always demanding spirits. Laura Linney makes Elizabeth perhaps a touch too stiff-necked in her earlier scenes but she's completely convincing when the woman finally comprehends the consequences of her inflexibility.

While the company gives generally staunch support, the performance that lends the production its firm backbone is Neeson's. Portraying a simple man with simple beliefs, this actor conveys anything but simplicity. Proctor questions his convictions only towards the end but, comprehending that others are constantly questioning them and likely to prevail, he becomes progressively more desperate. The expression on Neeson's face when at last he knows who he is, what his name means to him, and what he must do to keep it, it as indelible as if carved on Mount Rushmore. It's the look of a man who's been pulverized in a crucible and yet lifted by it. Exalted anguish: That's what Neeson's John Proctor triumphantly epitomizes.