It’s said that when The Crucible was first performed on Broadway, in late January 1953 at the Martin Beck Theater, Arthur Miller deemed the production “too stylized and cold.” One wonders what the playwright would make of his work’s newest incarnation, now in a limited run at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Directed by the much-lauded Dutch theatre/opera director Ivo Van Hove (who also helmed the recent hit Broadway revival of Miller’s A View from the Bridge) this stark and stripped down Crucible is certainly stylized—Jan Versweyveld’s sparse set represents no specific place or time—and perhaps a bit cold as well. But the realistic, bone-chilling performances, underscored by Philip Glass’s ominous original score, create an unforgettably powerful and disturbing theatrical experience. Miller’s cautionary tale of evildoing in the guise of piety remains as potent and relevant today as when The Crucible made its debut over 60 years ago (especially given the current presidential election cycle, where talk of “bringing America back” and fear of immigrants and religious minorities dominates the debates).
The curtain rises on a prelude of sorts: a group of schoolgirls, dressed in matching uniforms, sit in a classroom, their backs to the audience. We hear children’s voices singing. The curtain closes on this glimpse of normalcy, then quickly rises again to reveal a different scene, where young Betty Parris (Elizabeth Teeter) lies ill and immobile. We learn that another girl, Ruth Putnam, is similarly afflicted. From this point on, the normal, rational world no longer exists. Betty’s father, the local Reverend (Jason Butler Harner) is worried. He came upon Betty and some other girls dancing (a sin) in the woods (perhaps naked, an even greater sin) and he fears witchcraft may be to blame. He has summoned another preacher, John Hale (an excellent Bill Camp), an expert in demonic possession, to help make a proper diagnosis. A voice of reason, the elderly, highly respected Rebecca Nurse (a heart-breakingly effective Brenda Wehle), tries to rein in his fears, before things get out of hand, warning Reverend Parris, “There is prodigious danger in the seeking of loose spirits. I fear it, I fear it. Let us rather blame ourselves.” But it’s too late: the game’s afoot; the witch hunt is irrevocably under way.
As the ringleader of the girls, Parriss’s niece Abigail Williams, Saoirse Ronan is a terrifying piece of work. Slender, blonde, and pretty, she is a prime example of the perils of judging a book by its cover: this outwardly sweet young thing is the embodiment of a persuasive, sinister evil. The truth is that Abigail had the girls accompany her to the woods, along with the Barbadian servant Tituba (Jenny Jules) to participate in a ceremony that she hoped would bring about the death of Elizabeth Proctor (the brilliant Sophie Okonedo, who last graced Broadway in her Tony-winning performance in the terrific revival of A Raisin in the Sun). Young Abigail had a brief affair with Elizabeth’s husband John (British star Ben Whishaw, in an impressive Broadway debut) while working in their home, and in true “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” fashion, Abigail is determined to take Elizabeth’s place. Lest any of the girls consider divulging the truth, Abigail bullies them into silence, threatening Mercy Lewis (Erin Wilhelmi) and Mary Warren (Tavi Gevinson, a terrific young actress last seen on Broadway in This Is Our Youth): “Let either of you breathe a word, or the edge of a word, about the other things, and I will come to you in the black of some terrible night and I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you. And you know I can do it; I saw Indians smash my dear parents’ heads on the pillow next to mine, and I have seen some reddish work done at night, and I can make you wish you had never seen the sun go down!”
What makes this production of The Crucible so affecting is the cast—all top-notch. While the whip-thin Whishaw is not the robust physical type usually cast in the role of John Proctor, the choice seems especially apt in the final scene, when Proctor appears after having spent months in prison. He is filthy, abused, and starved. His scrawny bare back is bloody from torture. As he huddles with his beloved wife, (also filthy; also quite thin), he is a stand in for the ultimate man, Christ, headed toward his martyrdom. Whishaw is a fine, nuanced actor, best known in the UK for his West End stage appearances and in the U.S. for his roles in the James Bond film “Spectre” and TV’s “Criminal Justice.” The scenes between him and the luminous Okonedo are especially poignant. Special mention must also go to Ciarán Hinds’s frighteningly and self-righteously deluded Deputy Governor Danforth (truly chilling), Bill Camp’s evolving turn as the Reverend John Hale, who too late realizes his error in sanctioning the proceedings, and Tavi Gevinson’s wispy, mousy, ill at ease Mary Warren, a downtrodden lass who tries to stand up to the authorities and to Abigail, only to realize that she is no match for any of them.
Although The Crucible is based on real-life characters and events that took place during the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, Miller wrote the play as a commentary on a more recent—but no less abominable—American witch hunt (one which he personally experienced), the anti-communist “Red Scare” of the 1950s. Like the actors, writers, and others accused of anti-American activity under McCarthyism, the characters in The Crucible are at the mercy of their accusers. Any person may find himself suddenly accused. And anyone who refuses to “name names” is summarily condemned. Ironically, the only means of survival in the play is to admit one’s “sin” (even though innocent) and to accuse others. In both cases—Salem and the Red Scare—we see a world gone mad, driven by an irrational mob mentality and a perversion of morality as an excuse for barbarism.
In truth, the accusatory characters in The Crucible are driven by base, rather than pious, motives. Abigail lusts after John Proctor and will commit murder to have him. Ann Putnam (Tina Benko) accuses Rebecca Nurse, an upright pillar of the community, of witchcraft because she envies her many healthy children and grandchildren. And Ann’s husband, Thomas (Thomas Jay Ryan) wants Rebecca Nurse’s husband (veteran actor Jim Norton) out of the way so that he can take his land. Lust, envy, and greed—all in the name of piety!
In the final moments of The Crucible, Miller sends a powerful message via John Proctor. Just before he is to be pointlessly put to death, Proctor rails at the imperious judge who has condemned him, along with so many other innocents: “I hear the boot of Lucifer, I see his filthy face! And it is my face, and yours, Danforth!” As Miller reminds us, the Devil has always walked among us; he’s still here. And he looks a lot like us.
The Crucible plays at the Walter Kerr Theatre through July 17.
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This review originally appeared on Center on the Aisle.