The last time I attended a performance of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, I had not yet seen the McCarthy-Era set Trumbo or heard a candidate for president propose the “complete shutdown of all Muslims” entering our country. The plot struck me as plodding and the dialogue dense. Those recent reminders that unfounded fear can easily transform into outright hostility gave me a deeper appreciation of the unfortunate relevancy of this classic work. This is also a superior production, boasting a first-rate cast in the skilled hands of Ivo Van Hove, a director who has become synonymous with dark and moody productions.
The entire ensemble is polished and well-matched. Leading the way is Ben Whishaw, who at 5’9” is a decidedly unusual choice for the role of John Proctor. Whishaw’s Proctor — described as “big” throughout the script and typically played by actors large in stature — is undoubtably substantial on an emotional level. Sweet-faced Saoirse Ronan becomes ugly to her core as his nemesis Abigail Williams. She is balanced by the loving and warm interpretation of Proctor’s wife Elizabeth delivered by the dazzling Sophie Okonedo. Act Two is further brightened (darkened?) by a frighteningly powerful Ciarån Hinds as Deputy Governor Danforth. The headliners are supported by an able troop including Bill Camp as a growingly conflicted Reverend John Hale, Tavi Gevinson as Abigail’s tool Mary Warren, and Jim Norton as what passes for comic relief in the form of Giles Corey.
Throughout the nearly three hour running time, Van Hove proves adroit at slowly building the dread to an almost unbearable level. To emphasize the timeless cycle produced by anxiety and hate, the director moves the locale from Salem, Massachusetts circa 1692 to a utilitarian “sometime” with a set designed and lit by Jan Versweyveld. The starkness helps the audience focus on the lightning flashes of impressive effects that pepper the action. His actors dress in earth-toned unisex clothing by Wojciech Dziedzic, the better to disguise who is friend and who is foe. The relentless score that buries itself in the pit of your stomach is provided by Philip Glass, master of repetitive background music.
The Crucible is playing at The Walter Kerr Theatre through July 17, 2016. For tickets and information visit http://www.thecrucibleonbroadway.com. While I admire all the new names that have been brought to Broadway this season, I am equally thrilled to see an evergreen given such fresh life. It sets a high bar for those to whom this serves as an introduction to the great Miller’s work.