Salem's Conscience

By Caryn James '80 Ph.D. / May / June 2002
June 30th, 2007

The Crucible starring Laura Linney '86 and Liam Neeson. At the Virginia Theatre, New York City, through June 8.


In the first act of The Crucible, Laura Linney stands so erect and still as the Puritan wife Elizabeth Proctor that she is visibly the backbone of the play. Far across the stage, on the set of a roughhewn kitchen, is her husband, John, played by Liam Neeson. As their conversation delicately touches on intimate and explosive matters - the accusations of witchcraft in their town, his previous adultery with a young servant girl - Linney's very bearing describes her isolation. Yet her modulated voice and subtle facial expressions define a wild range of emotions: she is jealous, hurt, suspicious, and loving; she sternly judges her unfaithful husband yet is painstaking in her attempt to be fair.

With her blond hair dyed brown and tucked under a crisp white cap, Linney begins the play as the calm center in the midst of Salem's hysteria. By the end she has been accused of witchcraft herself and imprisoned. Crying, her hair fallen down, she has lost some of her stern edge but remains the drama's moral conscience, telling her husband that only he can decide whether to make a false confession to save his life, that she cannot judge him.

The genius of Arthur Miller's classic work is its infinitely malleable central metaphor. When the play first appeared, in 1953, the Salem witchcraft trials clearly alluded to the Communist witch-hunts of that era, but the metaphor lends itself to every conceivable threat to personal freedom and independent thought.

The magic of this production is the casting of Linney and Neeson, who together define their characters for our time. Their Elizabeth and John Proctor make The Crucible more than ever about powerful emotions and individual judgment. These characters might live today as they grapple with a situation in which an idea - witchcraft, the Clinton impeachment, American jingoism, or anti-Muslim sentiment - is breathed into the air and quickly grows out of control.

Linney and Neeson play off each other with amazing intelligence and vitality, energizing the production. That is especially obvious when both are offstage during the start of Act II. Then, this straightforward revival (directed by Richard Eyre, the English stage and film director who most recently made the movie Iris) briefly seems pedestrian, and it becomes clear how much this version depends on the two stars' fiercely honest performances.

Of the two, Linney may have the tougher job because her role is less flashy. As she charts her character's transformation into a more understanding person, Linney overcomes the challenge of play- ing restraint. In previous roles she has mastered just this kind of subtlety, with understated performances that eventually explode into emotions all the more intense for having been controlled so long. Last year alone she was nominated for an Academy Award for her role as a single mother in Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count on Me and played a small-town alcoholic living in the shadow of her dynamic, overbearing mother (Gena Rowlands) in the too-little-known Showtime television film Wild Iris.

Like Elizabeth Proctor, those characters begin meekly yet come into their own with touching impact. By the end of The Crucible, Linney's face is swollen from weeping as she tells her husband how she longs for him to live and yet how crucial it is for him to follow his conscience. You can feel the stillness in the audience. She creates a rare experience in Broadway theater, bringing a classic to life with breathtaking power and immediacy.

Caryn James is the chief television critic of the New York Times and the author of a novel, Glorie.

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May / June 2002