For the sixth time on Broadway, it’s the season of the witch. Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, his raw if hyperbolic reenactment of the deadly Salem Witch Trials, struck a nerve when it first premiered in 1953 as a scorching condemnation of the House Un-American Activities Committee, then in the process of uprooting communists via innuendo, scare-mongering, and intimidation. The play’s easy-to-understand themes of mob mentality and mass hysteria have made it Miller’s most produced work (especially in high schools and colleges), yet in all honesty, the piece is somewhat flat when considered outside the allegory for McCarthyism. As a theatrical experience in 2016, The Crucible needs freshening up.
And thus the prospect of maestro Belgian director Ivo van Hove putting his inimitable stamp on Miller’s work is too tantalizing to resist. Even if, as in the case with this Crucible (playing through July 17 at the Walter Kerr Theatre), the results are mixed. Van Hove’s daring recent production of A View from the Bridge — Miller’s play written immediately after The Crucible and a much deeper treatise on similar themes — took place in a sort of timeless netherworld, stripped of everything except for primal fears and desires. And van Hove’s The Crucible, likewise, makes no pretense of being set in the 1690s. In fact, the centerpiece of Jan Versweyveld’s schoolhouse set is a 20-foot long chalkboard — an apparatus that wasn’t seen in Massachusetts until the 1800s.
There’s also a sink with running tap water and a stove with the gas tank exposed. There are fluorescent lights on the ceiling and speakers on the wall. The second act begins with a live animal (and a wild one, at that) trolling the stage. And the actors are dressed in school uniforms and faux H&M sweaters. As with A View from the Bridge, the entire performance is underscored with music (Philip Glass in this case), which by the second act does grate on the eardrums a bit, not unlike the malignant hum of Vuvuzelas at a South African World Cup match.
But those are all unorthodox ideas for such a sanctified text, and van Hove’s ambition extends to the casting of the play’s two lead roles: The flawed, righteous John Proctor (previously inhabited by strapping gents like Liam Neeson and Daniel Day-Lewis) is portrayed by the lanky, tender Ben Whishaw. Proctor’s wife Elizabeth is played by Sophie Okonedo (a 2004 Oscar-nominee for another emotionally-wracked spouse part in Hotel Rwanda), and their mixed-race marriage is subliminally poignant within the anti-progressive madness that envelops them. Whishaw, whose strong voice lends him a rugged, powerful stage presence, shares a number of touching moments with Okonedo, the production’s beacon of warmth and forgiveness.
The insanity around the Proctors is sparked by Abigail Williams (Brooklyn star and recent Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan, like Whishaw making her Broadway debut), who has been spurned after an affair with Proctor and accuses his wife of witchcraft and wrongdoing. That smear extends to many other men and women in the village, all doomed to hang, and van Hove beautifully builds the ascending tension in the play’s first act, caressing Miller’s religious verbiage and ratcheted-up language as the situation becomes more treacherous and out of control. Van Hove also doesn’t forget to pump some of the lines with humor. “Stay close,” says a mother to the men attending her ill daughter, “in case she flies!”
That line gets a laugh, deservedly, since the audience knows that people can’t fly. But van Hove, curiously, then shows the girl actually levitating. It’s a neat special effect — as is the magical Biblical storm that occurs later in the play — but completely at odds with the intent of avowed atheist Arthur Miller, who never makes literal the paranormal in his text of The Crucible. Hence, the entire point of the play, which is foremost a cautionary tale about the danger of unenlightened and supernatural thinking, is blunted by van Hove’s paradoxical implication that the women of Salem indeed moved in mysterious ways.
Van Hove has a knack for stagecraft, that’s for sure. Anyone who has never seen one of his productions will be compelled by the muscle and grit of his style. He only stumbles in one significant area, with a lack of imagination regarding The Crucible’s most formulaic character: The figurehead of ignorance and inflexibility, Deputy Governor Danforth, a judicial expert brought in to wash out witchcraft, and the one person in the play most in need of a revisionist treatment. (Miler explicitly based him on Joseph McCarthy and not any of the historically known Salem figures.) But van Hove casts Ciarán Hinds, the fine Irish actor who’s nonetheless typecast as Danforth, spouting his many platitudes about how “No uncorrupted man can fear this court” with all the ambiguity of a Bond heavy. You may walk out of the play despising Danforth for his authoritarian ruthlessness, but that’s the easy route. And van Hove’s bold, electric production doesn’t quite juice Miller’s morality play with the ambiguity it needs to be truly tragic. B