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BWW Interview: Jason Butler Harner of THE CRUCIBLE- Fearful and Loathsome in Salem

Jason Butler Harner's first anguished words as Reverend Samuel Parris in The Crucible sets the unsettling tone to this amped-up contemporary take on Arthur Miller's classic play. He finds his daughter Betty seemingly unconscious, possibly from witchy dealings, and his cries pierce the theater.

The drama, under the compelling direction of Ivo van Hove, weaves Miller's familiar tale of teenage mayhem coupled with the supernatural. In spite of the play's somber and brutal machinations, Harner has found the ensemble uplifting and hopeful. "The experience has been pretty joyful and I'm so happy," Harner said. "I respect and value my relationship with Ivo, and to be back on Broadway is terrific. This company is so talented and dynamic."

Harner credits the tight ensemble with getting the tone just right for the events that result in brutal executions of perceived witches. "These are kind, kind people doing this play," he said. "The play is powerful and it had been hard to maintain the level of intensity until now." Harner is discovering nuances he hadn't noticed before in the early run.

"When you do a play like this for a long time you can appreciate the echoes of lines and phrases spoken by more than one character," Harner said. "There's a lot of repetition, and I hope the audience picks up on that."

Reverend Parris is consumed not only by the fear that his daughter is tainted by witchcraft, but also by the possibility that he will be forced to leave Salem. "He's afraid the witchcraft rumors will undermine the progress he's made in establishing roots in the community," Harner said. The reverend is not a very honorable man, he said. "Sam Parris is not a hero in this play. Apparently Miller was not a fan. I was reading stage directions and Miller hated him," he said. "When I looked at the script he described more of a frenzied maniac."

This version of the play, originally set in 17th century Salem, Mass., is awash in neutral tones and unshowy costumes (Wojciech Dziedzic, costume design). The play is set in a classroom (Jan Versweyveld, scenic and lighting design) with an eerie blackboard that is worth keeping your eyes on. The supernatural is made evident in school, instead of the accustomed courtroom. The story revolves around John and Elizabeth Proctor, but it's the entire community that is torn apart by the evil.

"I'm the kind of actor who truly believes that every play is a company play," said Harner. "It's really John and Elizabeth's play, but the challenge is that a lot of the unspoken lines are left to the viewer's imagination," he said. "The way we rehearsed is we were on our feet from the very first moment," he said, rather than seated around a table.

"We discovered line by line how we all work together," he said. "We know how to toss the ball effortlessly with each other. Sometimes it's a light toss and sometimes it's a hurl," Harner explained. "Everyone knows how to catch it and throw it back. One of the brilliant things about what the company has brought is that Act One is slowed down, what I call the grudge section.

"When we rehearsed, it was even slower. Some productions you get a lot of screaming hysteria immediately and throughout the play. When things start to unravel, when someone is trying to save his own skin, then you get to the hysteria of what is happening in the play," Harner said.

The drama is underscored by an unsettling original score by Philip Glass and hints of the other-worldly are alluded to visually (Steven Hoggett, movement) and aurally (Tom Gibbons, sound design). "The challenge of the play is that so many things are going on-the witchcraft-neighbor against neighbor," Harner said. "The misery of a couple that has lost seven children and looking to blame whomever possible. It's a house of cards that finally collapses on itself."

Harner prepared for the role by reading two essays by Miller and was inspired by "Witches' Flight," a painting by the Spanish painter Francisco Goya. It was part of a series of six paintings related to witchcraft. "Seeing that painting in Madrid really hit something," Harner said. "It was like diving for pearls. When I saw it in person I was able to crack into the play."

Gallows humor helps the cast through the darkness of the story. "I share a dressing room with Bill Camp" (Reverend John Hale) "and he plays a mean guitar. We improvise a lot of songs, which is really fun," Harner said. "We have zero space backstage and we're all standing there like we're in a men's meeting. What's fun is standing there especially in the third act, and watching the audience's reactions," he said.

"On St. Patrick's Day I saw a sea of green," he said with a laugh. Before going onstage Harner listens to music. "I have to have sound in my ears for 10 minutes prior. I come to the theater early, two hours, just to calm down and warm up," he said. "An hour before we go on we have a group warm-up, then the train goes very fast from seven to eight. Knowing I start the play makes me more focused," he said.

Playing such a deeply flawed character wasn't something Harner initially welcomed. "I never got to be dangerous until I was cast in CHANGLING and that changed my career path," Harner said. "There was a reluctance to enter Sam Parris' world. But I have a strong disdain when actors pull punches and don't make characters as self-serving as they need to be."

The Crucible will always be timely, regardless of when it's staged, Harner said - audiences will relate to the theme of persecution. "I hope there is a sense of personal responsibility because otherwise we're all culpable," he said. "And I hope people move toward action when it's called for."

The Crucible is playing at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street.

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