New York City Theater
Walter Kerr Theater
Without changing any dialogue, director Ivo van Hove takes Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” on a new path. Instead of a period piece about the Salem witch trials, an event that stood in for the infamous Joseph McCarthy anti-Communist witch hunt, the director places the drama squarely in contemporary times as a parable about conformity and the presence of evil in politics and religion.
Unlike van Hove’s brilliant guidance of another Miller play, “A View From the Bridge” earlier this season, this one doesn’t catch much fire until near the end. At that point, when John and Elizabeth Proctor, the besieged couple at the center of the mass hysteria in 1692 Salem, say their unbearable farewells, they finally reach the epiphany that brings them nobility. The drama is then supposed to move from domesticity to tragedy. But the way has not been paved and it’s almost too late in the long evening.
Van Hove tricks out his work with intimations of real witchcraft. Levitation, lupine danger and an extra-terrestrial event during the courtroom scene upend Miller’s point that the girls are pretending. In this production, hysteria, no doubt incited by racing hormones, is reduced to scare tactics and more than a hint that the girls really are possessed or, at least, con others into believing they also see apparitions.
Based, of course, on the real Salem witch trials and subsequent hangings, Miller writes about Abigail Williams, the teenager dismissed from the employ of Elizabeth Proctor who suspects, rightly, that she and Elizabeth’s husband, John, have “known each other.” Abigail and the pack of which she’s the leader dance in the woods, assisted by the Caribbean native, Tituba.
The pack includes the daughter of Rev. Parris, who, believing his child is bewitched, sends for Rev. Hale to exorcise the girls. But Abigail outwits the adults by naming Elizabeth as a witch, seeking to grab John for her own once her rival is out of the way.
This is also a play about guilt, an aspect elided here. Strangely, it’s the falsely accused, the less major characters caught in the web of social condemnation who dominate: Tavi Gevinson as the ethical Mary Warren, Bill Camp as the eventually enlightened Rev. Hale, Brenda Wiehle as the honest Rebecca Nurse, Jason Butler Harner as the arch Rev. Parris and, especially, Jim Norton as the pitiable Giles Corey
As the ambitious Abigail, Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan is forthright, as is Ciarán Hinds as the conniving Gov. Danforth. The other two above-the-title actors, Ben Whishaw (John Proctor) and Sophie Okonedo (Elizabeth) make that last scene both moving and provocative.
Philip Glass’ original score creeps throughout. Wojciech Dziedzic’s costumes are nondescript, while Jan Versweyveld’s utilitarian set becomes classroom, home, court and jail.
Although we’re neither here nor there, the classroom idea is central. On an upstage blackboard are written “The Dutiful Child’s Promises,” such as ‘I will fear God and honour the King” and “I will obey my superiors.” In van Hove’s view, it seems, trouble starts when adolescent girls rebel against the rules. It’s a valid premise even if it reduces Miller’s drama to a case study.
--David A. Rosenberg
April 19, 2016