Key Points:

Auckland Theatre Company's production of Arthur Miller's most-popular play lands the elusive double of emotionally gripping entertainment combined with meaningful intellectual stimulation.

The grim economics of live theatre have ground down the size and scope of contemporary plays, but with a cast of 22, The Crucible offers the expansive vision and dense textures of Shakespearean drama.

Much has been made of the play's relevance to contemporary events, but The Crucible accurately depicts the 17th-century Salem witch trials, and the principal characters are all drawn from the historical record.

By transposing the story to a 1950s-style religious community, this production focuses on the story beneath the historical narrative and invites us to search for allegorical meanings.

But for me, the power of the play is found in the thrilling dynamics of the historical story, which is delineated with great clarity in artistic director Colin McColl's sensitive and precise staging.

The contemporary references are fascinating but there is no accounting for what may pop into your head when watching such a complex work.

The programme notes point to totalising ideologies but the spectacle of an obsessively regulated society that turns neighbour on neighbour and child against parent had me thinking about the zealotry of a government that legislates on how its citizens should raise their own children.

Among the many fine performances, Raymond Hawthorne's spectacular turn as Governor Danforth was a highlight.

His authoritative presence and tightly clipped diction captured brilliantly the cruel obstinacy of officialdom.

This impression was powerfully reinforced by Ray Henwood's aloof and impassive Judge.

The sordid opportunism of the witch hunt was brought home by Gareth Reeves' finely nuanced depiction of the cowardly political expediency of Reverend Parris.

Roy Ward shows restrained eloquence as Reverend John Hale, the expert on witchcraft who is an intriguingly ambivalent and endlessly equivocating character.

The hysterical mayhem of the witch hunt is set loose by the malicious dissembling of Abigail Williams, played with convincing malevolence by Ellen Simpson.

Brooke Williams as Mary Warren nicely captures the naivety of a lowly servant girl who revels in the celebrity status that comes from participating in the courtroom histrionics.

Humour is not one of Arthur Miller's strong points, but George Henare drew plenty of laughs with his portrayal of the cranky Giles Corey, and Elizabeth McRae provides the welcome voice of common sense as Rebecca Nurse.

Peter Daube delivers a magnificent performance as John Procter, the flawed hero who carries all of the play's complex moral dilemmas and embodies the American ideals of independence, courage, practicality and devotion to family.

What: The Crucible.

Where: Maidment Theatre.

Reviewer: Paul Simei-Barton.