Through Oct. 9, Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., (860) 527-5151, hartfordstage.org
Be in your seat before curtaintime for this production of The Crucible, lest you miss the most startling moment of staging the show has to offer, which is as much the brainchild of influential environmental set designer Eugene Lee as it is of director Gordon Edelstein.
After that stellar opening, act one of this famous four-act American classic alternately drags and waxes melodramatic: hard to avoid since the play is about hysteria, witch hunts, and the ways in which these are heightened by gender and parish politics in the town of Salem, Mass., in 1693. A certain amount of exposition is required.
But the play, which Arthur Miller wrote as critique of the Red Scare of McCarthyism and the HUAC hearings in the 1950s, steadily grows on you. Each act zeros in on a different location, a different collection of characters, and a different decisive moment, with precious little explanation of how these moments relate in time: Miller trusts us to connect the dots.
Only two characters — John Proctor, an adulterous but upstanding farmer around whom the play centers, and Reverend Hale, a visiting minister who is expert on the ways of the devil — appear in all four acts. Tall and lanky, Michael Laurence plays Proctor with craggy naturalness and taciturnity that can burst into eloquence; I've never seen the role done better. David Barlow as Reverend Hale struggles more with this difficult part, which requires him to veer from authoritative certainty through growing doubt to despair.
This production also highlights the way this is a play about marriage; yet another subject with which Miller had hard experience. (He was married three times, leaving his first wife for an affair and subsequent marriage with Marilyn Monroe.) Kate Forbes as Goodwife Proctor is able to match Michael Laurence in a performance that is full of suppressed emotion, attendant volatility, and expressive silences. You want to see more of her than this play allows — a likely prospect in coming seasons as she is a regular collaborator for Darko Tresnjak, the incoming artistic director at Hartford Stage.
The other standout performance in this show is Sam Tsoutsouvas as the leading trial judge, Deputy Governor Danforth. His voice is both powerful and immensely musical. He offers a master class in how to establish authority through stillness on stage.
Gordon Edelstein, the director of this show and artistic director at Long Wharf, has mounted this text twice previously. Here, he's made the choice to abandon historical accuracy and pictorial realism in design. The costumes have been updated from the uniform clothing of Puritan times to a non-specific rural look of about 1910 for a very good reason: this way, it's much easier to see class differences between characters. You can tell who is farmer, merchant, lawyer, and preacher. This helps foreground one of Miller's arguments: that in times of trouble, it is the racial minority, the poor, the mentally ill, and the marginal who first are targeted. Only when the respected people of town are condemned does the fervor start to die, leaving space for the uneasy suspicion that land grabs and financial gain have fueled much of the persecution all along.
There is, of course, a lesson in that for our current times, when fear of terrorism walks the land, breeding suspicion of fellow citizens. The production at Hartford Stage — the first Miller play mounted there since 1967, incredibly — is timely. Let's hope it helps us connect the dots in our own time of trouble.