Ivo Van Hove, directs this riveting and highly charged production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible at Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theater. During the last year, I have seen two other classic stage productions under the direction of Van Hove- Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge and Sophocles’ Antigone. All three plays left me feeling as if I was part of each tragic drama, and I pondered the action hours and days afterward. The major characters in all three plays hold strong beliefs, and are unyielding in them, even to the extent of causing someone’s death or each one’s own death. Millers’s plays thematically are about reputation, about holding up under intense pressure, about deep convictions. To fully understand The Crucible, one must understand the metaphor of the crucible. The crucible is either a place or an occasion of severe test or trial or it is defined as a ceramic or metal dish in which its contents may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures. The Crucible is set in Salem, Massachusetts in the seventeenth century during the witch trials. Similarly, sixty-five years ago, Senator Joseph McCarthy conducted what became known as the McCarthy hearings. These hearings were designed to expose communist sympathizers and Americans practicing communism. The hearings turned into a modern day witch hunt similar to the Salem Witch Trials centuries earlier, but with less devastating results. With this political backdrop, Arthur Miller crafted in 1953, an intensely woven, historically based story that features a web of lies and false accusations that have the effect of placing people within a metaphorical crucible, resulting in their imprisonment and death by hanging. Saoirse Ronan plays deceptive Abigail, the young woman responsible for igniting the witchcraft controversy, Sophie Okonedo plays the wounded and emotionally charged Elizabeth Proctor, Ben Whishaw stars as the resolute and lustful John Proctor, Bill Camp stars as the influential yet ambivalent Reverend Hale, Ciaran Hinds plays the tenacious and uncompromising Deputy Governor Danforth,Tavi Gevinson plays the frightened Mary Warren and Jason Butler Harner plays the pious Reverend Parris. Jenny Jules plays a noteworthy Tituba, Parris’s slave, and the first woman historically to be executed and blamed for witch craft. Through technology, sound design, great props, costume design, and compelling performances, Ivo Van Hove’s staging transfixes the audience to the extent in which we feel the intensity of the characters’ actions as if we too were condemned for a wrong we did not commit. No elaborate set takes our eyes off of the characters. These characters all embody fierce determination.
The metaphor of the crucible is best illustrated though the characters’ actions, and is further highlighted through “a crucible” on stage. All of the characters are figuratively placed in a crucible. They are all in a fiery trial that seeks to destroy them. The actors’ countenances all convey deep conviction in the midst of the trial. On stage, there is a huge pot of boiling water that is heated under a high intensity flame. The flame continues for a long time, further illustrating both the trial’s strength and length. Although Saoirse Ronan receives top billing, Sophie Okonedo, best known for her role in Hotel Rwanda and for a Tony Award in A Raisin in the Sun, delivers an emotionally wrought performance that allows the audience to witness the depth of her pain. She trembles, she weeps, and she pleads all while delivering lines with great intensity. We agonize with her. Because she is a victim of infidelity, she is cold, yet respectful toward her husband. The physical love is gone and she wears clothing that is not considered feminine (pants) ; however, we are able to see that she still loves her husband, in spite of an obvious lack of chemistry. Similarly, one can see that the depth of temperament from Ciaran Hinds as Deputy Governor Danforth is resolute and tenacious; it shows the magnitude of his convictions to secure convictions, and makes the audience cast aspersions on his sincerity to authentically investigate the events concerning the Proctors and others accused. Ronan, as Abigail is absent, or quietly on the sidelines through much of the play. But when she is in a scene she fights, rages, and argues vehemently and ferociously with John Proctor, and bullies the other girls, resulting in great amplification of the text to help illustrate the conflict and the fear that the other characters have toward her. Jim Norton (I saw him as Candy in Of Mice and Men on Broadway) as Giles plays a sympathetic character. His performance allows us to empathize with him when he realizes the magnitude of his mistake in accusing his wife of witchcraft for merely reading books.
The music, the props, the costumes, the make up design, and the technology all lift this production visually and aurally. Throughout the entire production, Phillip Glass’s music is played with great force but with a low volume in the background. Music is foreboding, foreshadowing ominous events to come. The play, even opens with children singing sweetly, but the platitudes in their songs herald portentous events because the audience is aware that the characters can not meet the high standard to which they are held. The blackboard has commandments that the children are required to follow. The music as well as the props are indicative of their strict Puritan upbringing. Technology is used to illustrate the concept of “the fruit of the poisonous tree.” Once the lies are told, more lies are told to extent that it infects “all the trees in the garden.” A wolf is used on stage to sniff out those engaged in witchcraft. The wolf comes out on cue, sniffs around the stage, then leaves; it represents Deputy Governor Danforth, who sniffs and sniffs, until he can sniff no longer- until all damage is done. Props are also used to reveal the chaos that the witch hunt causes. At times, the stage floor is covered with debris, illustrating the anarchy that encompasses the characters’ lives. At the end of the play, the accused are disheveled and wear tattered clothing and chaotically applied makeup, further illustrating the coming disaster and the tattered ruins of their lives.
Because of the collective effort of the actors, of Ivo Van Hove, with Phillip Glass’s original score, and the rest of the creative team, one will have an intense experience and will ruminate about parallel contemporary witch hunts. This performance is a must see! It is now in previews. Opening night is March 31, 2016 with a strictly limited engagement of twenty weeks. Share your thoughts.