'The Crucible' echoes today's hysteria

Saoirse Ronan (foreground) and Elizabeth Teeter, Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut, Erin Wilhelmi and Ben Wishaw (background) in a scene from "The Crucible," directed by Ivo van Hove (Jan Versweyveld)

I was drained at the end of “The Crucible,” but not by the nearly three-hour running time. Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s Broadway revival at the Walter Kerr Theatre is the most compelling production of Arthur Miller’s historical drama I have ever seen.

With the barest of staging, van Hove puts full emphasis on Miller’s story of the real-life Salem witch trials of 1690s and the lying and hysteria that turned neighbor against neighbor in a wave of religious judgment. Miller wrote the play, which won the 1953 Tony Award for best new play, as an indictment of the witch trials of his day, the McCarthy anti-communist hearings and blacklistings.

Scheduled as part of the centennial year celebration of Miller’s birth, the play is once again timely in this political season of hysteria, against Muslims in particular but against all immigrants as well. That was also the case for the last Broadway revival, in 2002, following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. 

The 18-member cast of international film and TV stars includes two-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan (most recently nominated for her role in “Brooklyn”), Ben Whishaw (“The Danish Girl”), Sophie Okonedo (Tony winner for “A Raisin in the Sun” and Oscar nominee for “Hotel Rwanda”), and Ciarán Hinds (“Game of Thrones”). They and the rest of the cast give their all, fully embodying those damned and damning Puritans of long-ago New England.

Every element of the production adds to its chilling atmosphere and mounting fear. Composer Philip Glass’ original score is ominously haunting, rising in intensity as the indictments mount. Scenic and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld provides a set that looks like a community room in a modern penitentiary, with slate gray brick walls and utilitarian metal tables and chairs. Every scene, from that of the villagers’ homes to the courtroom, takes place there. The minimalism forces all attention to the plot as we see good person after good person jailed by the testimony of a band of lying teenage girls. 

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Ronan plays Abigail Williams, the leader of the pack, with a steady control that keeps the character believable throughout, from her feelings of rejection as her married lover, farmer John Proctor (Whishaw), turns her aside, to her malicious courtroom dramatics that end in death sentences for so many she claims consorted with the devil. It is easy for this character to become shrill, but Ronan never lets that happen.

Whishaw and Okonedo, as John’s wife, Elizabeth, also nail their parts beautifully, evolving from a couple in a troubled marriage to one unified in love and commitment in the moving final scene.

I also appreciated Wojciech Dziedzic’s costume design. In their muted-colored pleated skirts, white shirts, knee socks and tights, cardigans and hoodies, the girls look like modern New York prepsters, and the women, in wide-legged pants and loose, oversized tops, look right out of the downtown bohemian scene. This further emphasizes the contemporariness of the play’s story. Period costuming would have been distancing. 

This production, which continues through July 17, is the second example I’ve seen this season of van Hove’s brilliant reconceptualizing of a classic drama. In the fall, he directed Miller’s “A View From the Bridge” with another stark staging that was gripping. That production was a transfer from London, where it also met with acclaim.

These two productions are marvelous birthday presents to Miller, who died in 2005 at 89. One of the American theater’s most moralistic writers, Miller had an understanding of what impelled the rush to judgment in Salem, Mass.

“They believed, in short, that they held in their steady hands the candle that would light the world. We have inherited this belief, and it has helped and hurt us,” he wrote.

“When one rises above the individual villainy displayed, one can only pity them all, just as we shall be pitied someday. It is still impossible for man to organize his social life without repressions, and the balance has yet to be struck between order and freedom.”

Miller wrote that at the time of the original production in 1953. In 2016, his words, sadly, still ring true.

[Retta Blaney is an award-winning journalist and the author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors.]


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