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A ‘Crucible’ of great theater by the Gallery Players

Now that the hysteria over health care reform has reached its crescendo — hopefully — why not revisit the classic parable of groupthink run amok, Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”?

Better yet, as performed by The Gallery Players, “The Crucible” is one of the finest examples of community theater in recent memory.

Of course, a good deal of the credit goes to Miller, whose script remains as relevant and gripping as it was when first performed in 1953 during the height of the McCarthy era. But the ample cast — there are 20 characters, which is quiet a lot for a community show — gives strong performances all around. Add in atmospheric lighting and the audience’s rapt attention, and you have a show well worth the ticket.

If by some failure of the American educational system you were not forced to read the play in high school or college, here’s the Cliff’s Notes version: the story centers on the antics of five girls who are caught dancing in the woods in puritanical 17th-century Salem, Mass. As the accusations of witchcraft begin consuming the town, reputations are damaged, petty rivalries become matters of life and death, and families are torn apart — all because of a legal system rooted in faith and conjecture.

Reflecting the sympathies of the playwright — Miller admitted to attending several gatherings of the Communist Party in the 1940s — the flawed protagonist of “The Crucible” is John Proctor, a humble farmer played by Gil Brady, who is one of the only locals that is skeptical of the hellfire and brimstone hysteria sweeping Salem.

Brady’s debut with the Gallery Players as Proctor was initially too stiff — even for a Puritan. But after the intermission, he noticeably loosened up, and skillfully evoked Proctor’s complex mix of righteous indignation and shame over his infidelity.

The object of Proctor’s infidelity — the mercurial Abigail Williams — is played by Lindsay Mack. Always sporting some semi-satanic red garb, Williams is also the wild teen at the root of the madness that results in numerous locals being locked up for witchcraft.

Daniel Damiano, playing the reverend John Hale, adds a similar complexity to his character. In the first act, before the gravity of the situation as been fully revealed, Hale’s shallow Puritanical logic makes for some easy laughs — and Damiano cleverly draws them out. But once the witch trial is in full swing, Hale has become a priest with blood on his hands, and his guilt only adds to the drama as the town falls deeper into the amoral abyss.

Lastly is John Blaylock, who plays the Napoleonic head of the court, Deputy Gov. Danforth, who arrives on the scene to determine the accused fates, and passes both spiritual and legal judgment with stunning recklessness. Blaylock brings an intimidating, austere demeanor to Danforth, who is an all-powerful figure in Salem during the trial.

Still, the cast is not without its flaws. Some of the play’s most emotional and tense moments remain out of reach (hey, it’s 14th Street, not W. 44th Street). The critical courtroom scene in which four girls pretend they have been possessed by a spirit was more of an ear-grating banshee wail than a moment that lays bare the impossibility of any real justice in superstitious Salem.

But with the furor over health entering a new chapter, “The Crucible” makes for a solid reminder that at least it didn’t get that bad. At least the Tea Party quacks can’t convene an actual witch trial — although they’re certainly not above burning a few effigies at the stake.

“The Crucible” at The Gallery Players [199 14th St. between Fourth and Fifth avenues in Park Slope, (718) 832-0617] runs Thursdays–Sundays through April 4.

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