The Crucible
Artist Repertory Theatre, 241-1278
Through Oct 14

How many plays are out there that tell stories set in Puritanical America? I can think of very few. This is because Puritanical America was boring as HELL. A bunch of hard-working Calvinists reading their bibles, eating gruel, and building cold-ass houses so their wives could give birth to 50 children. Not only is it dull, but nobody in this fast food, internet society can connect with that kind of discipline.

Which is exactly what makes Arthur Miller's The Crucible such an astounding playwriting feat. It's set in Puritanical times, AND it's entertaining, AND its story of a reactionary witch hunt is as relevant today as it was during the Salem witch trials in 1692. Miller wrote it in the throes of McCarthyism, which is the most obvious contemporary point of relevance, but as the introduction to ART's current version states, witch hunts happen "wherever people demonize a scapegoat to explain their own disappointments."

That eloquent program note is unfortunately one of the most stellar parts of this rather flat production, in which director Allen Nause has gone for a stripped-down, let's-get-back-to-the-text approach. The set consists of four wooden platforms, the light design is less complicated than many high school shows, and there's also some violin music. It's the opposite of flashy, but still could be authentically effective were the enormous cast up to the enormous challenges of the script. Alas, they are not. Only Marylin Stacey, as the unfairly tried Elizabeth Proctor, and Michael Fisher-Welsh, as the guilt-addled Reverend Hale, are spot-on. The other dozen or so actors range from cheesy to atrocious.

With no smoke and mirrors to distract from the bouts of shaky acting, the production comes across as surprisingly amateurish, with some of the worst wigs and silliest costumes that ever graced a professional stage. (Never EVER paint dirt to indicate dirtiness. Use real dirt. It looks real.).

This isn't a terrible production. Welsh and Stacey are on stage a lot, and things cook when they are, but even they can't save the show from its general mediocrity. Miller's words floor you in the worst of hands, steamroll you in the best. Here, they get you down and kick at you for awhile, but walk away before finishing the job.