Arthur Miller’s 1953 drama The Crucible is a big play — big ideas, big cast, big emotions. In a season of multiple Miller celebrations (last October 17 was the hundredth anniversary of his birth), Ivo van Hove’s lucid and often mesmerizing production at the Walter Kerr Theatre honors all of those big factors without overwhelming us — unless it’s by the sheer impact of a company so right in nearly every detail, from the major roles to those less so. That is to say, the play’s best known fact — that in writing a drama about the Salem witch trials of the late 1600s, Miller was really writing about the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s — is here left to our imaginations. Van Hove and his incomparable troupe — led by beautifully felt performances from Ben Whishaw (The Danish Girl), Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda) and Soairse Ronan (Brooklyn) — play it straight. I think the impact must be quite similar to that felt by theatergoers 63 years ago.
The Crucible recounts the vengefulness and hysteria that overtakes the village when a zealous Reverend Parris (Jason Butler Harner) comes upon a group of girls dancing one night in the local woods. Their presumed leader, Abigail Williams (Ronan, as radiant and compelling a young actress as we have today) insists the dancing was innocent, even under questioning from the “expert” Parris brings in, Reverend Hale (Bill Camp, as miraculously clear as ever).
Abigail earlier had an affair with local farmer John Proctor (Whishaw, youthful, serious and earthy) that she is eager to resume despite his ruinous guilt and the love he feels for his wife Elizabeth (Okonedo, in a performance whose truthfulness glistens), who is now pregnant. Hysteria quickly takes over the town and sweeps up others in the growing insanity, including Giles Corey (Jim Norton, in another of his exquisite flights of gruff solidity). Eventually, the state intercedes in the persons of Judge Hathorne (Shakespeare in the Park regular Teagle F. Bougere) and Deputy Governor Danforth (Ciaran Hinds, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — ever the thoughtful heavy).
Van Hove (along with Steven Hoggett, credited with “movement”) limits the suggestive witchcraftery to a few brief blackout moments that reveal the girls levitating, and some quakey rattling that dislodges the lights. But he has opted for simplicity, setting the play entirely in a drab chamber (designed and lit by his regular partner, Jan Versweyveld) that does double duty as the drama’s public and private settings. The set is the production’s major misstep, a serious one, with it’s fluorescent lighting and school-house chairs, a jarring environment for both Miller’s language and Wojciech Dziedzic’s elegantly simple clothes. Even Philip Glass’ underscoring holds back, letting the drama rule.
The Crucible marks van Hove’s second Miller staging on Broadway this season, following his blood-drenched A View From the Bridge last fall. He’s quickly become one of the leading exemplars of director’s theater in the world, and where others have celebrated it, I have often found his work pretentious and misguided. Not here. For a play that worked so hard to drive home its contemporaneous message, The Crucible can be a challenge to make work. This is a definitive production.