Theatre Review: Arthur Miller’s The Crucible with Saoirse Ronan and Ben Whishaw

Crucible Playbill

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.
For more information.

This review originally appeared on Center on the Aisle.

SIDE SHOW

Side Show

St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St.

Unless you act soon—and by soon, I mean within the next 2 weeks, Side Show will be the best show you’ve never seen. And that’s just sad. I had the privilege of seeing this excellent production several days ago, and its poignant spell is still with me.

Lead Cast: Erin Davie (Violet Hilton), Emily Padgett (Daisy Hilton), David St. Louis (Jake), Ryan Silverman (Terry Connor), Matthew Hydzik (Buddy Foster), Robert Joy (Sir)

Director: Bill Condon

Music: Henry Krieger

Book and Lyrics: Bill Russell

Additional Book Material: Bill Condon

Background:  The current Broadway production of Side Show is a revamped version of the original, which opened 17 years ago, on October 16, 1997. The show is based on a true story of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, who rose from exploitation as freaks in a seamy side show to become Vaudeville stars. Although the original show received many positive reviews (New York Times critic Ben Brantley called it a “daring, enthralling production”), it closed on January 3, 1998, after only 31 previews and 91 regular performances. Sadly, history will repeat itself when the new Side Show closes on January 4, 2015, just 7 weeks after opening night.

I didn’t see the 1997 Broadway production, but I’m told by people who did that the new version adds several new songs and cuts others, and that the book has been reworked to include more exposition about the Hilton twins’ childhood in England.

The Production

I found this show absolutely riveting from beginning to end. The opening number “Come Look at the Freaks,” sets the mood: the sets (by David Rockwell) are spare, often only suggesting the actual physical surroundings. The lighting (Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer) effortlessly guides your eye to focus on what’s important in any given scene. There are some special effects—as when a costume change appears to happen by magic—that are amazing.

But it is the performances take your breath away. Erin Davie and Emily Padgett, actresses who offstage don’t really look alike, convince us that they are physically identical—literally joined at the hip. In addition to the physical transformation, they also convey the twins’ very different personalities. Daisy (Ms. Padgett) is brash and flirtatious and dreams of stardom. Violet is more reserved. Their contrasting personas are illustrated in the song “Like Everyone Else:”

Violet sings, “I want to be like everybody else; to walk down the street not attracting attention.” Daisy yearns for fame: “I want to be like everyone else, but richer and more acclaimed. Worshiped and celebrated.” The stunning costume designs (by Paul Tazewell) underscore the idea of sameness vs. difference: Daisy and Violet dress alike, but in dresses that are mirror images of each other.

Because a “normal” life is impossible for the sisters, who have always been made to feel they are “freaks of nature,” only Daisy will get her wish. Once rescued from the exploitation of the side show by the handsome, smooth-talking Terry O’Connor, the girls achieve fame and fortune as Vaudeville stars. (Of course they are still being exploited, but with a higher standard of living).

I want to give a shout out to David St. Louis, who as Jake, the girls’ protector and champion (and who suffers unrequited love for Violet), is simply stunning in every scene he plays and every song he sings. I’m hoping that he’ll be recognized, along with Davie and Padgett, with a Tony nomination

Heartbreaking Moments

Side Show is ultimately a love story. Despite an often cruel and exploitive world, Daisy and Violet know that they will always have each other. While they do consider separation surgery, they are told that it is risky—that one or both might not survive. They realize that it is their connectedness that truly defines them and makes them special; that in a world where they are viewed as freaks, they are never alone. They are bound together in body and soul, by love.

Two emotional duets underscore the touching and profound love between Daisy and Violet: the first act closer, “Who Will Love Me as I Am?” and the last song in Act 2 (before a reprise of “Come Look at the Freaks”), “I Will Never Leave You.” If these plaintive songs don’t bring a tear to your eye, you have no heart.

From “Who Will Love Me as I Am?”:

Who will ever call to say I love you? Send me flowers or a telegram?

Who could proudly stand beside me? Who will love me as I am?

From “I Will Never Leave You”:

I will never leave you; I will never go away

We were meant to share each moment; Beside you is where I will stay

Evermore and always; We’ll be one though we’re two

For I will never leave you

Why the Side Show Must End

Why can’t this thrilling and touching show make it on Broadway? Part of the problem stems from the subject matter. When people hear the words “Siamese twins” and “freaks” they may mistakenly assume the show is somehow distasteful or upsetting. Other reasons are more mundane, having to do with the “business” part of show business. While the orchestra section was full for the matinee I attended, theatre staff they told me that ticket sales for the mezzanine were generally poor. When St. James Theatre owner Jujamcyn saw an opportunity to book a potential blockbuster new musical, Something Rotten (directed by Book of Mormon’s Casey Nicholaw), it turned its back on Side Show. As Side Show producer Darren Bagert told The New York Times: “We were persuaded to post a notice prematurely, in the middle of a holiday season ticket upswing. If there weren’t another show clawing at the door, I think we’d still be at the theater.”

When I spoke to several cast members after the performance, they were understandably disappointed that this high-quality, audience-pleasing production was ending too soon. Like Daisy and Violet, both the 1997 and 2014 productions of Side Show beseech us: “Who will love me as I am?”

So, in the words of Side Show’s opening number, “Come Look at the Freaks”:

Ladies and gentlemen, step right up! Right this way!

See the freaks! They are here! They are real!

They are all alive! Inside!

(But only until January 4).

Trivia: January 4, the date the current Broadway production will close, is the same date the Hilton sisters died (in 1969, at age 60).

Ticket Info: Discounted tickets are available on Playbill.com and at TKTS in Times Square. You can find detailed information about Side Show and other Broadway shows at BroadwayHelper.com

I urge you to see this amazing show before it’s too late. While the show’s website doesn’t specify any age recommendation, due to the mature subject matter, I would say leave the kids under 15 at home.

Show Website.

With Erin Davie.

Erin Davie