After stripping down Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge to a Greek tragedy in a memorable production last fall, avant-garde director Ivo van Hove has approached Miller’s often-revived historical drama The Crucible with the same unjaded eye. Staging the play in a modern dress production, van Hove has brought the contemporary relevance of this parable of the Salem Witch Trials to the forefront and many will be more impressed with this production than his groundbreaking A View from the Bridge. With a terrific ensemble cast led by British and Irish stage and screen stars Ben Whishaw, Sophie Okonedo, Ciarán Hinds, Saoirse Ronan and Jim Norton, backed by 13 American actors, this production of The Crucible will make you feel as if you have never seen it before even if you think you know it very well.
It is well known that Miller wrote his 1953 The Crucible about the Salem Witch trials of 1692-3 as a response to the McCarthy hearings in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, a modern witchhunt in which Sen. Joseph McCarthy and The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) sought to find communists in post-W.W. II American society. Now a classic taught in high schools in American literature classes, the play was originally not successful. One theory was that people were afraid to be seen attending the play for fear that names were being taken at the door of the theater. As some of our political candidates for high office are using fear and intimidation as a way of pandering to a certain part of the population, the play’s message of the damage done by guilt by association is topical once again.
Van Hove sets his version in a modern classroom. When the curtain goes up we first see the girls who will later accuse various people in Salem, Massachusetts, of having bewitched them, seated at desks and singing in unison. The curtain descends and then the play begins with Miller’s first scene. Puritan Reverend Samuel Parris has caught his daughter, his niece Abigail Williams, his black servant Tituba, and other girls in the community dancing in the forest around a cauldron, all forbidden behaviors. On seeing him, his daughter Betty has become catatonic. When expert witch hunter Reverend Hale, who has been sent for, questions Tituba, she confesses to communing with the devil, an idea he plants in her mind.
To save themselves, Abigail and the other girls confess to having been with the devil but now repent. They then begin accusing various women in the community of having bewitched them. Out for revenge, Abigail accuses Elizabeth Proctor, her former employer who fired her for suspicion of having an affair with her husband John. One by one, good people of Salem are accused of a crime they cannot prove or deny, mostly guilty by association. In trying to defend themselves and others, several of the most respected people in the community bring retribution down on their own heads. Mob rule becomes the spirit of the day and the proceedings spiral out of control.
The classroom setting works both as a metaphor and as a way of streamlining the four act play to one set. Among possible explanations are that The Crucible has become a staple of the classroom, the girls of the story would today be in school, and the play with its historical story of a witch hunt in 1692 is instructive as a text for our time. Van Hove has trimmed the cast list somewhat without diminishing it one bit. The use of the classroom with its huge blackboard and walls of windows on either side designed by long-time van Hove associate Jan Versweyveld for all four locations works extremely well with a few additional prop pieces brought in for each scene.
Versweyveld’s subtle lighting helps distinguish the four scenes and times of day. Wojciech Dziedzic’s bland, contemporary costumes in monochromatic colors help blur the fact that this is in modern dress. Special effects designed by video designer Tal Yarden and movement specialist Steven Hoggett allow us to see what the denizens of Salem on stage see. The original score by Philip Glass adds to the eeriness of the story and the atmosphere.
Making his Broadway debut Ben Whishaw who has in the past played sensitive, artistic young men might seem strange casting for the Massachusetts farmer John Proctor. However, as the upright man of integrity with one mistake on his conscience, he rises to great heights as the doomed hero of this play. As his wife Elizabeth, Sophie Okonedo who won the Tony Award for a similar role in the 2010 revival of A Raisin in the Sun is winning as the loyal, loving wife who can forgive her husband for his trespasses.
Making her American stage debut, film star Saoirse Ronan as Abigail Williams, the unruly and willful young woman out for revenge who brings the initial charges of witchcraft, demonstrates tremendous range as she shows that she could not be more different than her Academy Award-nominated role of Eilis in the film of Brooklyn. As Abigail, she is steely cool, diamond sharp, a person you would be afraid to cross. Ciarán Hinds who has appeared on Broadway in Closer, The Seafarer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is frightening as the stern, monomaniacal and rigid Deputy Governor Danforth who would rather claim to seeing witches than admit he has been taken in by an unruly girl.
Fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson as Mary Warren, the Proctors’ current servant, creates a well-drawn portrait of a young woman afraid to stand alone to do what is right. Tony winner Jim Norton as the roughhewn Giles Corey, honest as the day is long, and Brenda Wehle as the saintly Rebecca Nurse are truly memorable. Among the other roles, the cast is also first rate: Jason Butler Harner as the hypocritical Reverend Parris who has delusions as to what is owed to a minister by the community, Thomas Jay Ryan and Tina Benko as the greedy Putnams who are only involved for financial gain, and Bill Camp as the truly troubled Reverend John Hale who begins to regret his role in the proceedings.
While The Crucible has had five Broadway revivals, the most recent in 2002 with Liam Neeson and Laura Linney, its attraction is undeniable: an historical story with a message that still speaks to us today as it could, and has, happened again. This first modern dress production carries home the message that it could be your neighbors up on stage – or you yourself. Credit Ivo van Hove with making the Devil walk once again.
The Crucible (through July 17, 2016)
Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-307-4100 or visit http://www.thecrucibleonbroadway.com
Running time: two hours and 45 minutes including one intermission