Review: ‘The Crucible’ at The Walter Kerr Theatre in NYC

Arthur Miller’s 1953 play has been resurrected by Producer Scott Rudin and 20 cohorts in a production staged by Ivo Van Hove, who performed similar service to Miller’s A View From The Bridge  earlier this season. Once again, Van Hove has taken a powerful script and infused it with visions of his own.

Sophie Okonedo (Elizabeth Proctor) and Ben Whishaw (John Proctor). Photo by Jan Versweyveld.

Sophie Okonedo (Elizabeth Proctor) and Ben Whishaw (John Proctor). Photo by Jan Versweyveld.

The  Crucible was the playwright’s angry antidote to the House UnAmerican Activities inquiries and the Senator Joseph McCarthy hearings that brought an end to the careers of some of Hollywood’s successful writers and actors, and death to a handful of others. Gossip, innuendo, and hysteria ran rampant during the early 1950s and Miller metaphorically damned it all with his powerful play.

Mr. Van Hove, in an attempt to make its relevance even more potent for today has elected to stage the piece in modern clothes. He’s also chosen to abandon the original scenic plot and set it all in a girls schoolroom. Because of the modern look, it’s allowed him to cast actors of color to play several of the New England principals, and to underscore the play with music by Philip Glass. He’s put his directorial stamp on it in other ways too. A prologue has been added in which a classroom of girls is discovered seated facing a blackboard; their backs are to us and they don’t move. Once they’ve been established, the curtain falls then rises again, and the play begins. On another occasion, he lowers the curtain half way during a scene, then raises it again. He’s chosen vivid makeup to show us the horrors of offstage interrogations in the last scene of the play.

His cast is powerful and commanding. Some of the supporting players are particularly effective. Jim Norton, for example, makes of “Giles Corey” a courageous local who accepts a cruel fate by refusing to enter a plea either way to save himself. Mr. Norton is clearly an actor who belongs onstage. His voice is his instrument and he uses it superbly.

Bill Camp and Jason Butler Harner are vivid as the Reverends Hale and Parris, who are given ample time to express their opposing views in the trial of John Proctor and his accuser Abigail Williams.

In leading roles, Ben Whishaw and Sophie Okonedo play the happily married Proctors who refuse to deny their truly religious beliefs even though those beliefs are not acceptable to the presiding and powerful theocracy.

As Deputy General Danfort, Ciaran Hinds continues his Anglo-American career by offering great strength and conviction to his character, who is blinded by his adherence to what he sees as the unbendable church rulings. The play crackles with the fireworks of the battle to contain the hysteria created by Abigail, as wildly and effectively played by Saoirse Ronan, who won about every award going for her lovely work in the film Brooklyn, in which her character was everything Abigail is not.

The scenic and lighting designs by Jan Versweyveld support Mr. Van Hove’s vision, but don’t always help us to know where we are. The contemporary clothes (the girls wear school uniforms, the others wear clothes that look as though they’ve been bought from a Lands End or Haband catalog). The play holds up. It has power but I believe it would have more if it were less blunt. The final scene between John Proctor and his wife is touching and beautifully played, but it comes at the end of a very long evening, one that might be trimmed to suit the thought that sometimes less is more.

Elizabeth Teeter (Betty Parriss), Saoirse Ronan (Abigail Williams), and Tavi Gevinson (Mary Warren). Photo by Jan Versweyveld.

Elizabeth Teeter (Betty Parriss), Saoirse Ronan (Abigail Williams), and Tavi Gevinson (Mary Warren). Photo by Jan Versweyveld.

For those who’ve never seen The Crucible, it joins this season’s A View From The Bridge, Eclipsed, China Doll, Blackbird, American Psycho, and others that offer us a dark vision of the human condition. There are other plays that all share a common plea for us to have a look inward, to try to face the truth of our imperfections, to root them out and ease our way back to the kinder worlds of Our Town, Ah, Wilderness!, The Music Man, She Loves Me, and other works that celebrate the triumph of the gentler side of our nature over our occasionally darker instincts.

The Crucible will provoke you, but if you’re prepared for that, there are rewards waiting for you at the Walter Kerr Theatre on 48th Street.

Running Time: Two hours and 55 minutes, and an intermission.

The Crucible plays at the Walter Kerr Theatre – 219 West 48th Street, in New York City. For tickets, go to the box office, call Ticketmaster at  (877) 250-2929, or purchase them online.

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