by Samuel L. Leiter
Once again experimental Belgian director Ivo van Hove (A View from the Bridge) is stirring things up with an unconventional take on a familiar modern classic, this time Arthur Miller’s 1953 The Crucible. Inspired by the HUAC hearings of the late 40s and early 50s that searched for communists under every American bed, The Crucible uses the analogy of the 1692 Salem, Massachusetts, witch trials as a way of excoriating the politically motivated witch hunts of Miller’s day.
Today’s targets may be tarred with different accusations but character assassination and guilt by association continue to mar human relations, especially in the Internet age. Think also of the theocratic leanings of certain present-day politicians that threaten the separation of Church and State. I directed a production of The Crucible 30 years ago and have seen several since, but van Hove’s, despite its wildly mixed reviews, and some questionable choices, is the most powerful, riveting, and provocative of them all.
The Crucible examines the mass hysteria stirred up in a Puritan community by the accusations of witchcraft leveled by seventeen-year-old Abigail Williams (Saoirse Ronan) and other girls as a way of avoiding punishment for having been seen at night dancing in the woods; they blame their behavior on the Devil. Allegations of witchcraft are leveled by Abigail at various Salem women, including Elizabeth Proctor (Sophie Okonedo), wife of the independent-minded farmer John Proctor (Ben Whishaw), Abigail’s employer, whom she seduced and whose wife she’d like to replace.
The townspeople respond in a superstition-fueled frenzy that brings powerful officials, led by the obdurate Deputy Governor Danforth (Ciarán Hinds), to Salem to seek out the devil worshippers; torture and the threat of hanging are deployed to force the defendants to name names. Motivated by personal animosities including greed, vengeance, and envy, neighbors turn on neighbors, and reason to unreason. Tragedy ensues when the morally compromised John Proctor performs a sacrificial act that saves his “name,” leading his equally condemned (and pregnant) wife to say, “He has his goodness now.”
All of the action is set by van Hove in an unexpected location—one suggesting institutional oppression—a huge, icy, high-school classroom, with a blackboard dominating the upstage wall. It’s perfectly designed and lit by van Hove associate Jan Versweyveld. Wojciech Dziedzic’s bleakly pertinent costumes are modern, mostly in shades of gray and black. Underscoring the performance is the extraordinarily potent hum of a Philip Glass score adding a feeling of tension and dread throughout.
The racially diverse ensemble, with each of its top-billed stars being British or Irish, is very strong. Miller’s ripe pastiche of antique English has never sounded so bitingly fresh. Whishaw, who can sometimes seem effete, is an impressively robust and emotionally riven Proctor; Okonedo (A Raisin in the Sun) demonstrates sensitivity and intelligence on every line; Hinds (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) is commandingly ruthless; and youthful film star Ronan (Brooklyn) conveys scarily muscular anger and wickedness. The leads are perfectly complemented by the startling ferocity of young Tavi Gevinson’s Mary Warren, the serving girl initially willing to oppose the madness; the redemptive heroism of Jim Norton’s old Giles Corey (“More weight!” he’s said to have demanded when pressed with stones); the sympathetic helplessness of Bill Camp’s Rev. Hale; and the sniveling confusion of Jason Butler Harner’s Rev. Parris. Each of the smaller roles gets similarly distinctive work.
Engrossing as van Hove’s staging is, he goes too far when the girls have an ecstatic outburst, with dramatic lighting, smoke, and scenic effects, including the partial collapse of the classroom ceiling. An earlier moment, when we briefly see Rev. Parris’s daughter levitating, looks great, but also makes little sense, since literalizing the visions only makes them real, not imaginary. Similarly, among other questionable practices, people too often sit or crawl regardless of the nearby chairs. (Stephen Hoggett is credited with the “movement.”) And do we really need that wolf-like dog roaming about as act two starts?
Nonetheless, the magnetic pull of van Hove’s The Crucible is so strong, even at two hours and forty-five minutes, and its universal message so piercing, that such directorial slipups can be forgiven. Clearly, Arthur Miller’s play has withstood the crucible of time.
Walter Kerr Theatre
219 W. 48th Street, NYC
Through July 17
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).