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The Crucible

by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels
Elizabeth Teeter, Saoirse Ronan, and Tavi Gevinson
(Photo: Jan Versweyveld)

During this centenary of American playwright, Arthur Miller, director Ivo van Hove took the helm for the Broadway revivals of A View From the Bridge and now The Crucible, adding his provocative theatricality and inspired casting to another relevant Miller work.

With van Hove, gone are superfluous props and furnishings. The wide stage is given to the 17th-century Massachusetts characters coping with stormy allegations of witchery and devil worship. The Crucible is considered an allegory, produced in 1953, inspired by Senator Joe McCarthy's virulent anti-Communist investigations and allegations. Just as incriminations in 1692 led to accusations and arrests, the Red Scare of the 1950's led to naming names and a blacklist.

In Salem, Reverend Samuel Parris (Jason Butler Harner) spies a group of young girls, including his daughter, Betty, dancing naked in the woods with a black slave suspected of practicing voodoo. When Betty collapses with hallucinations, Abigail, the leader of the girls, foments rumors of witchcraft. Guilt by association and overblown charges of demon worship, divide the town with rampant hysteria. Several accusers, however, including the deceitful Reverend and Abigail, have personal reasons to point fingers, like quests for power and money.

Abigail's reason is jealousy. She once worked on John Proctor's farm and the two had an inappropriate affair. Proctor broke it off and fired her and now, in revenge, Abigail accuses John and his wife, Elizabeth of witchcraft.  Reverend Hale, known for his studies of demonology, is called in to help.  When the Massachusetts Deputy Governor Danforth steps in, a trial is called.

People are arrested for the vaguest hints of occult behavior. Dozens are forced to name names, charged and jailed.  In a move to deny the charges and also defend his good name from adultery, Proctor persuades his teenage maid, Mary, to testify against Abigail and the others.

Von Hove includes harrowing examples of spectacular supernatural effects including levitation and a furious whoosh of energy that shatters the wide window into the room. Not to be ignored as the third act opener is a "wolf" who strolls ominously across the wide stage and stands at the edge of the stage studying the audience. (It's a Tamaskan, a wolf look-alike dog, well-trained by William Berloni).

The large cast includes outstanding performances by Ben Whishaw (The Pride) with Sophie Okonedo (A Raisin in the Sun) as John and Elizabeth Proctor who share an urgent fervency fighting the denouncements against them. Proctor is livid at the injustice and Okonedo's expressive face is nuanced with emotion. Seeing the couple in bloody rags at the end is heartrending.

Bill Camp as a compassionate Reverend Hale is a scholar torn in his beliefs. His humanity stands in sharp contrast to Ciarán Hines's portrayal of the caustic Deputy Governor. As the teenager's intimidating leader, Abigail, Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) alternately shifts from desperate to malicious, direly warning her friends, "I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you."

Jan Versweyveld, scenic and lighting designer, created a school classroom for Stephen Hoggett's fluid movement. A blackboard is filled with what looks like Biblical scrawlings. The girls in the classroom are all wearing contemporary school uniforms designed by Wojciech Dziedzic, who dressed the adults in earth-tone 17th-century garb, all lending the stage a gray ambiance of undefined time and place. Phillip Glass' brooding background score adds to the metaphysical build of Miller's script.

Arguably overly theatrical but always riveting, the accounts of fire-and-brimstone, alienation and character assassination stand out in this imaginative work, as timely in 2016 as it was in 1692.

Walter Kerr Theater
219-West 48 Street, NYC
Previews: March 1, 2016, Opened: April 7, 2016. Closing: July 17, 2016
Two hours, 45 minutes. One intermission
Playwright: Arthur Miller
Director: Ivo van Hove
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors