Solely as a historical drama about the Salem witch hunts of the 1690s, Arthur Miller’s classic “The Crucible” is as gripping as ever, depicting the mass hysteria and mob mentality that overtake a Puritanical New England community, and the collateral damage it tragically inflicts on a lot of good and upstanding people.
When the play premiered on Broadway in the 1950s, of course, it purposefully functioned as a timely and topical allegory about the Communist “witch hunts” of that McCarthy era, when a climate of pointing fingers and casting blame and “naming names” ran rampant. Some 60 years later, you might think that Miller’s original construct had lost a certain amount of its in-the-heat-of-the-moment edge or relevance.
Then again, sadly enough, maybe not. In the wake of one of the most polarizing presidential elections in American history, artistic director Freddie Ashley’s starkly envisioned and genuinely arresting Actor’s Express production of “The Crucible” seems to suggest otherwise from the outset.
For starters, the seating arrangement in the theater divides the audience on opposite sides of scenic designer Pamela Hickey’s elongated set. At the same time, Ashley’s anachronistic use of a multiethnic ensemble of actors — with 21 members, it’s possibly the biggest cast we’ve ever seen at the Express — clearly speaks to issues about diversity and inclusion that have been hotly debated of late.
And when the character of Danforth (who presides over the Salem witch trials) gravely intones, “Now we shall touch the bottom of this swamp,” it suddenly attains a new significance as an uncomfortably laughable one-liner, given the repeated references to that word during our last political campaign.
Each of the play’s scenes climaxes in a powerful flourish of lights and sounds (sharply designed by Joseph P. Monaghan III and Ed Thrower, respectively). But for all of the bombastic fury that fuels its many grander discussions about “prodigious danger” and “pointy reckoning,” about “unnatural causes” and “obscene practices,” Ashley’s staging registers most profoundly on a personal level.
Jonathan Horne (Georgia Ensemble’s “The Elephant Man”) delivers an impassioned, if eventually somewhat overwrought, performance in the central role of the conscientious but conflicted farmer John Proctor. Primarily known for her work in musicals and comedies, Shelli Delgado (Aurora’s “Into the Woods”) is startlingly persuasive as Abigail Williams, his scorned mistress and chief accuser. As his wife, Elizabeth, better still is the ever-estimable Courtney Patterson (the Alliance’s “Disgraced”), whose scenes ache with a quiet desperation and painful honesty.
The rest of the large cast is variable, although Charles Green (as the dubious Rev. Parris), Tamil Periasamy (as the more reasoned Rev. Hale), Falashay Pearson (as the impressionable young Mary Warren) and Bryan Davis (as the pious Danforth) have their moments.
In the end, that “The Crucible” could be described as a “period piece” isn’t to say that it doesn’t also transcend time and place, to chilling effect.
Through Feb. 19. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. $21.60-$37.80. Actor’s Express (at King Plow Arts Center), 887 W. Marietta St. N.W., Atlanta. 404-607-7469, www.actors-express.com.
Bottom line: As potent as ever.