'The Crucible': Theater Review

Jan Versweyveld
Elizabeth Teeter, Saoirse Ronan and Tavi Gevinson in 'The Crucible'
Searing performances make the hysteria frighteningly real.
7/17/2016

Saoirse Ronan leads the accusers in this revival of Arthur Miller's morality play about the Salem witch trials, with Ben Whishaw and Sophie Okonedo as John and Elizabeth Proctor.

After enlivening the downtown theater scene for years with his iconoclastic takes on classic texts, Ivo van Hove continues his bracing entry into the Broadway arena with his second production of an Arthur Miller drama. While The Crucible is a very different play from A View From the Bridge, which the Belgian avant-garde director staged to ecstatic acclaim earlier in the season, the two works can also be seen as companion-piece tragedies. Both end with an accused man's wrenching refusal to be stripped of his name. However, in The Crucible, that man's innocence of the crimes with which he is charged adds blistering heat to the corruption of power that Miller so vehemently targeted.

Van Hove knows how to channel that heat. Almost operatic in their intensity, his productions are designed to leave audiences agitated and uncomfortable, which is notably the case with this distressing 1953 drama, with its steadily amplified sense of horror and indignation.

Like the director's View From the Bridge, the mesmerizingly acted new production trades the play's specific period and milieu — the witch trials of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 — for a pared-down look and non-naturalistic, indeterminate setting. Wojciech Dziedzic's utilitarian costumes and Jan Versweyveld's single set, a vast, high-ceilinged schoolroom, suggest the 1950s. But the intention appears not to evoke Miller's allegorical subject, the McCarthy scourge, when citizens were coerced to name suspected Communist sympathizers, ruining lives and careers. Nor does van Hove seem interested in underlining contemporary parallels in an election year in which one of the leading candidates has fueled support by trading on fear and hostility.

Instead, the production presents a chilling account of the institutional arrogance and ignorance that are a threat to civil liberties in any age, particularly when the dividing lines separating politics, religion and the judiciary become blurred. Episodes of mob-mentality recklessness and its consequences are present throughout history, and Miller's cautionary tale remains a trenchant illustration of the dangers of demagogic leadership destroying a community by disseminating distrust and paranoia.

The face of this production is Saoirse Ronan, icy and commanding in her first stage appearance. She follows her breakout film work as the timid Irish girl who blossoms so tenderly to self-possessed maturity in Brooklyn with a sharp pivot to simmering resentment and reflexive cruelty that erupt out of sexual, religious and class repression. Her Abigail Williams in fact could almost be an older version of one of Ronan's earliest screen roles, the vicious little minx in Atonement. Her accusing finger is what sets the accelerating hysteria in motion to the point where nobody is safe. And when it comes vengefully to rest on the blameless Elizabeth Proctor (Sophie Okonedo), who dismissed Abigail after the servant girl had sex in the barn with her guilt-ridden husband, John (Ben Whishaw), the fury of the inquisition is multiplied.

The production opens with a brief curtain-up on the girls singing a prayer while seated facing a rear-wall blackboard on which the Puritan text "The Dutiful Child’s Promise" is written in chalk. Their piety thus inferred, we then witness their gullibility as Abigail, the natural leader, grasps to cover up the reasons why they were found dancing in the woods. Ronan's steely calculation is beautifully contrasted by the guilelessness of Mary Warren, the innately good, not terribly bright girl who tries to speak out about their dangerous make-believe tricks. She's played with affecting openness by Tavi Gevinson, who continues to emerge as a remarkably instinctive actor after last season's This Is Our Youth.


Sophie Okonedo and Ben Whishaw in 'The Crucible'

One element of the production that no doubt will be divisive is van Hove's decision to visualize the supernatural manifestations that the girls succeed in conjuring in the fertile imagination of a populace primed for hellfire. While many productions have staged the unscripted nocturnal frolic that causes the trouble, van Hove skips it. But he includes levitation, a prowling wolf and electrifying scenes of the group's feigned trances. Those interludes are choreographed as convulsive ballets by Steven Hoggett, accompanied by jittery animation that spreads across the blackboard. The intention is clearly not to show that the witchcraft is real, but that the power of suggestion has made it so, for the girls as well as the onlookers.

Van Hove observes the careful mechanisms of Miller's construction, with a first act that expertly defines the various townsfolk and their roles in the gathering calamity. There are incisive performances from Jason Butler Harner as Abigail's uncle, the slippery Rev. Samuel Parris, eager to steer the suspicion of witchery away from his afflicted daughter; Tina Benko and Thomas Jay Ryan as Ann and Thomas Putnam, loathsome alarmists who feed the panic; and Brenda Wehle, superb as Rebecca Nurse, a charitable pillar of the community who dismisses the adolescent girls' feverishness as the "silly season" she recognizes from her numerous children and grandchildren. The price she pays for her clear-sighted skepticism is as shattering as the fates of the Proctors.

Also on the victims' side of the uproar is the disputatious old farmer Giles Corey, played with fiery irascibility by the wonderful Jim Norton. The character with the most complex moral arc is Rev. John Hale, the learned religious authority brought in to oversee the proceedings. Bill Camp makes a strong impression in the part. Initially swallowing the fraudulent testimony of Abigail and her pawns, he's solemn and self-important, before realizing too late his role in sending innocent people to the gallows. There's no such awakening of conscience in Ciaran Hinds' imperious Deputy Governor Danforth, who sends a chill into the air from the moment he strides onto the stage, full of rigid certainty before he's even interrogated a witness.

Some will argue that Miller's already somewhat preachy, portentous text doesn't need any emphatic help, though the original score by Philip Glass — an almost wall-to-wall sonic carpeting of needling percussion, mournful chants and funereal strings — contributes to the production's ever-tightening noose. Also tremendously effective is Versweyveld's unforgiving lighting and Tom Gibbons' creepy sound, nowhere more so than in the startling stagecraft that blows the turmoil of Salem directly into the Proctors' farmhouse.

As strong as the ensemble is, the indispensable anchoring forces are Whishaw and Okonedo, both of them devastating. Miller wrote Elizabeth as a virtual saint, so it helps that Okonedo plays her early scenes with an almost brittle detachment. But the stoicism she exhibits through her suffering is heartbreaking, as is the pain behind her refusal to judge her compromised husband as he agonizes over whether to make a false confession and save himself.

Whishaw seems unconventional casting for John, a role often played by older, brawnier types — Liam Neeson, Iain Glen and Richard Armitage in recent stage productions; Daniel Day-Lewis onscreen. But the actor brings stirring truth to Proctor's fatal progression from a man already somewhat suspicious of doctrinaire thinking and its cowering followers to one who openly condemns the blind religious and legal zealotry that have ripped apart his community. He holds nothing back in the play's harrowing final emotional crescendo, a scorching indictment of fearmongering and its cost to individual freedom.

Venue: Walter Kerr Theatre, New York
Cast: Ben Whishaw, Sophie Okonedo, Ciaran Hinds, Saoirse Ronan, Bill Camp, Tavi Gevinson, Jason Butler Harner, Jim Norton, Tina Benko, Jenny Jules, Thomas Jay Ryan, Brenda Wehle, Teagle F. Bougere, Michael Braun, Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut, Elizabeth Teeter, Ray Anthony Thomas, Erin Wilhelmi
Director: Ivo van Hove
Playwright: Arthur Miller
Set & lighting designer: Jan Versweyveld
Costume designer: Wojciech Dziedzic
Sound designer: Tim Gibbons
Video designer: Tal Yarden
Movement director: Steven Hoggett
Executive producers: Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, John Johnson
Presented by Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Roger Berlind, William Berlind, Len Blavatnik, Roy Furman, Peter May, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Scott M. Delman, JFL Theatricals, Heni Koenigsberg, Daryl Roth, Jane Bergere, Sonia Friedman, Ruth Hendel, Stacey Mindich, Jon B. Platt, Megan Savage, Spring Sirkin, Tulchin Bartner Productions

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