IS IT ME, OR DID OUR MEDIA RUN OUT of good analogies back when Nixon was in office? Every demagogue of the day (Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Ralph Reed) is "another Hitler," every scandal is a "another (insert scandal here)-gate," and every censor-in-a-teapot is "another witch hunt." Of course, the dogged investigation of President Clinton's sexual shenanigans with Monica Lewinsky and a Fidel "Hitler" Castro-endorsed cigar are hardly comparable to the inhuman persecution--and execution--of thousands during this country's witch trials in the late 1600s. Nevertheless, as soon as Clinton-gate gained momentum, we heard the familiar cries of "Witch hunt! This whole damn thing's a witch hunt!" And sure enough, new productions of one of the most successful dramatizations of this analogy, Arthur Miller's The Crucible, would soon follow.

Most know that Miller penned the play in 1953 to underscore the unconstitutional excesses of the McCarthy hearings. The Crucible debuted just a few years after the end of World War II, amid a barrage of anti-Communist propaganda and fear of an atomic attack. Miller's loosely historical play, set in the 17th century, concerned a young, sexually frustrated girl's false claim of demonic possession. The ploy escalated into a mass trial centered around witchcraft, and ultimately devastated a New England town. As an analogy for McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee, Miller's witch trial was perfect: artfully timed, pointed, and acrid with the emotions that accompany oppression, paranoia, and anxiety about the unknown.

Watching Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein's production of The Crucible at ACT, however, I was struck by how hollow the play seems without an apt contemporary scaffold on which to hang itself. Predictably, Edelstein knocks at Clinton's gate for parallels. In the program's "Message from the Director," Edelstein writes: "So what does The Crucible mean to us today? In Miller's words, its 'lethal brew of political manipulation, illicit sexuality, and fear of the supernatural' is a potion that is not so unfamiliar these days, combining themes that still obsess us. Whatever one has come to think of the sexual McCarthyism surrounding the White House over the past year, and whatever one may think about its various players, certainly it is a cast filled with sinners and few, if any, saints."

Drawing, as Miller did, a parallel between the witch trials and the communist trials seemed brilliant in 1953: in both cases, a perceived threat to the status quo resulted, ironically, in chaos. Clinton-gate, on the other hand, was more a chaotic annoyance. While some might argue that holding up Clinton-supporter and adulterer-outer Larry Flynt as a champion of free speech suggests we let Flynt's bygones be bygones, calling on Miller (as some news magazines actually did) to comment on the political persecution du jour suggests we let bygones be bywords. In 1999, Miller's play has been trotted out so many times and to such varied purpose that it's become a sort of über-analogy, cut off from its context. In many ways, Miller's play is as tenacious as its characters, and--like its characters--is in danger of death by overkill.

That's too bad, because The Crucible is good. Miller constructed a timely parable populated with complex characters. And in fact, the character work in Edelstein's production honors the play's rich dialogue. With the exception of R. Hamilton Wright and Jeanne Paulsen as Mr. and Mrs. Putnam, the actors carry the play's heavy-handed theme without crossing the line into melodrama. (Unfortunately, Wright's cartoonishly stiff posture and Paulsen's vocal affections border on parody.) Stephen Rowe as John Proctor and Clayton Corzatte as Giles Carey fill the space with energy, no matter what's happening in the scene. In perfect counterpoint, Laura Ann Worthen, as Proctor's long-suffering wife, pulls off the play's most dramatic moments with a skillfully subtle hand.

But despite Edelstein's occasional attempts to jolt us with a stagy visual (the young "witches" dance on a grating above our heads as if they'll fall into our midst; fluorescent lights on a circular grid drop into scenes like a ring of white-hot fire), the production lacks purpose. Edelstein's direction is competent. The acting is proficient. The set and costumes are suitable. The choreography is serviceable. The play is a modern classic, because history repeats itself. So what? Popular films (the sexy Winona Ryder Crucible, for example) and the mainstream media cry "Witch hunt!" so often, the analogy's become almost a reflex. The next production of The Crucible (and there will be a next one) sorely needs a new angle on the play, not just a new scandal to plug into it.

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