CAMBRIDGE — The question of complicity in a lie — or, say, oh, I don’t know, perhaps more than 12,000 demonstrably false or misleading statements in less than three years, documented by one of the nation’s leading newspapers? — hangs thick in the air over Washington just now.
So, in theory, this is a very good time to revive “The Crucible.’’ After all, while Arthur Miller’s drama about the infamous Salem witch trials of the late 17th century was written in response to the McCarthyite Red Scare of the 1950s, it has resonance as a broader allegory of the deadly consequences that can occur when collective irrationality and mendacity (of both the intellectual and moral sort) hold sway.
However, in the premiere of a coproduction by Bedlam and the Nora Theatre Company, the relevance and enduring potency of “The Crucible’’ are engaged in a constant battle with the play’s over-familiarity and Miller’s propensity for windy excess — a battle that, alas, ultimately ends in no better than a draw.
In theory (there’s that word again), Bedlam is the perfect troupe for the task of revitalizing the much-performed “Crucible.’’ One of this adventurous, New York-based theater company’s specialties is devising muscular, stripped-down approaches, virtually devoid of scenery or costumes, to canonical works. In the past few years, Bedlam has delivered a fresh electric charge to everything from Shaw’s “Pygmalion’’ and “Saint Joan’’ to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet’’ and “Twelfth Night’’ to Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility.’’
But I found “The Crucible,’’ helmed by Bedlam artistic director Eric Tucker, to be the least captivating of the numerous productions the company has staged in Cambridge or Boston — and not just because the larger-than-usual cast of 13 means Bedlam cannot showcase the versatility it has displayed in other productions, when actors have slipped in and out of multiple roles with chameleonic dexterity.
Yes, there are moments when Tucker and his cast (a blend of Boston- and New York-based performers) do conjure the frenzy of mass hysteria as accusations and counter-accusations of witchcraft fly in Salem over the spring and summer of 1692, leading to multiple hangings, betrayals and “confessions’’ by accused trying to save their own skins, and ruined lives. Yes, the particular brand of jolting energy we associate with Bedlam does periodically enliven the production, delivering bursts of illumination that endow Miller’s 1953 play with a present-day immediacy as “The Crucible’’ dramatizes the destructive impact on a community when religious belief is taken to paranoid extremes.
But there are protracted periods when this “Crucible’’ drags, and the sorts of devices that felt innovative in earlier Bedlam productions here register more as gimmicks: humming, whistling, sudden stops and starts by the cast in unison, a scene that transpires in the dark with actors wielding flashlights. Most ill-conceived is the production’s opening scene, which distances the audience all too literally.
It transpires in a Salem bedroom where the inexplicably frozen immobility of a minister’s young daughter has triggered fears that she is under a witch’s spell, not long after she and other village girls have been seen dancing naked in a forest. Those fears soon escalate into panic that the devil is at work, cementing the resolve of religious authorities to Make Salem Great Again by rooting out the witches in their midst, however spurious and even ludicrous the “evidence’’ of witchcraft is. Tucker has chosen to stage the opening scene in a diorama alcove at the very rear of the playing space at Central Square Theater, which creates the odd effect of events unfolding in a dollhouse.
This conceit mercifully does not last long, as the staging transitions into the kind of up-close performative immediacy for which Bedlam is famed. But the performances themselves are a mixed bag.
Ryan Quinn’s portrayal of John Proctor, the would-be voice of reason in a world gone mad, needs more modulation and variety to fully engage the audience in Proctor’s ethical struggles and compromises. Susannah Millonzi excels as Elizabeth Proctor, John’s wife, traversing an intricate emotional range as Elizabeth wrestles with her feelings toward the husband who strayed from the marital bed with young Abigail Williams (Truett Felt, capable but not vivid).
(As at any production of “The Crucible,’’ while watching John Proctor posture as the victim of scheming Abigail and initially unforgiving Elizabeth, a present-day audience is likely to find itself puzzling over the line between the historically accurate depiction of the double standard faced by women and Miller’s own sexism.)
In his portrayal of Deputy Governor Danforth, who imposes harsh “justice’’ with little regard for the humanity of his victims, Joshua Wolf Coleman has chosen, or been directed, to conduct too much of his performance at a shout — a particular problem because Danforth is such a dominant figure in the second half of “The Crucible.’’
Caroline Grogan makes for a compellingly conflicted Mary Warren, a servant who sets out to dispel the “witch’’ hoax, only to become a target herself. Able supporting performances are also delivered by Randolph Curtis Rand as the weaselly Reverend Samuel Parris, Dayenne CB Walters as the compassionate Tituba and doomed Rebecca Nurse, and Tucker himself as Reverend Hale.
It is in Hale that perhaps the play’s most intriguing evolution occurs. Initially a zealot eager to enforce an absolutist view of religion, he grows increasingly troubled as more and more innocent people face persecution at the hands of Salem’s power-mad authorities. Eventually Hale confronts the obligation — vital then and now — for honest people to call a lie a lie.
Play by Arthur Miller. Directed by Eric Tucker. Presented by Nora Theatre Company in association with Bedlam. At Central Square Theater, Cambridge, through Oct. 20. Tickets begin at $25, 617-576-9278 ext. 1, www.centralsquaretheater.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin