Substitute the word "Communists" for the word "witches" in Arthur Miller's searing drama "The Crucible" and you'll have an accurate idea of what motivated the playwright to write this searing drama in 1953, the height of a scourge known as McCarthyism.

The fictional witch hunts of Miller's epic mirror the political inquisition by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950s, but the play is more concerned with demons than beliefs, illustrating what horrors an ignorant, superstitious citizenry may foment once a single seed is planted.

The Costa Mesa Playhouse has taken on a formidable challenge in bringing Miller's daunting "Crucible" to the stage. Director John McQuay has done mostly commendable work with this heavy, often unwieldy play, though a few minor weaknesses may be found.

McQuay has chosen some ominous, brooding music to accompany the action, fading it in shortly before each scenic blackout. This gives the production a more cinematic effect, accompanied as it is by Travis Hunter's pinpointed lighting design. Technically, this production stands on high ground.

There are few more difficult and demanding roles than that of John Proctor, the Massachusetts farmer whose household is devastated by accusations of witchcraft. In the Costa Mesa production, Gordon Carmadelle embodies this staunch, unbending figure with force and fortitude, battling the onrushing tide with grit and gusto in a memorable performance.

As his stolid, humorless wife, who bristles at her husband's infidelity with a local trollop, Tiffany McQuay renders most of her character in a soft-spoken monotone, finally cracking the emotional barrier in the play's final moments.

The deputy governor, charged with rooting out the "witches" of the town, is performed with articulate authority by Bruce Schechter. Likewise, Ed McBride delivers a staunch depiction of the Rev. Hale, a dedicated witch hunter whose own convictions undergo a major alteration.

The show's weakest point, however, is the performance of Gregory Doyle as the town pastor, Rev. Parris. His halting, tentative delivery compromises the force of the play and produces several awkward moments in addition to the loss of his own character traits.

Tara Golson electrifies the production as Abigail, Proctor's sultry onetime illicit lover who levels a witchcraft charge against his wife. Valerie Lohman also is highly impressive as Mary Warren, her replacement in the Proctor household, who battles both inner and outer demons.

There is a large coterie of citizens on both sides of the theological coin in Miller's concept.

Strongest among them in the local rendition are Sallie Coltrin as the aged Rebecca Nurse, Jack Paul Clark as the greedy landowner Thomas Putnam, and Andy Lehmann as the bureaucratic court official Ezekiel Cheever. Brent Kim misses the chance to forge a major conflict as Putnam's nemesis Giles Corey.

The Spartan unit setting of Travis Stolp, who also plays the court official Judge Hathorne, offers a drab, brooding effect that suits the production beautifully. Period costumes of a 1692 vintage are nicely rendered by Marlee Candell and Liz Reinhardt.

"The Crucible" remains a landmark drama in the American theater. The three-hour production at the Costa Mesa Playhouse offers playgoers an opportunity to reflect on more recent history.

TOM TITUS covers local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "The Crucible"

What: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2p.m. Sundays through May 6

Cost: $16 to $18

Call: (949) 650-5269