Broadway Review: “The Crucible” at the Walter Kerr Theatre Relives a Horrific Time in History

April 1, 2016 | Broadway | Tags:
Review: “The Crucible” at the Walter Kerr Theatre Relives a Horrific Time in History (Through Sunday July 17, 2016)
By Arthur Miller
Directed by Ivo van Hove
Reviewed by Michele Willens
For Theatre Reviews Limited

There are certain productions that you know – even before the curtain comes up – whether they will grab you or not. The latest revival of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” is probably one of those.

First, let me say that the curtain goes up – and down – an odd number of times throughout the almost three-hour show, which just opened at the Walter Kerr Theater. But then, it is directed by Ivo van Hove, so one expects the unexpected. You either appreciate his daring choices or find them a bit self-important. I confess I am somewhere in the middle.

“The Crucible,” about the female witches of 17th century Salem, has its diehard proponents, and those who are not now and never will be. While “Death of A Salesman,” “All My Sons,” and “A View from The Bridge” are relatable in their family dynamics, “The Crucible” is about an idea. The play was written in 1953, smack in the middle of Joe McCarthy’s hysteria, when who named whom became the mantra of that horrific time.

I admire the fact that van Hove has eliminated the accoutrements of the period in which the play takes place. (Unlike the 2002 version, which starred Laura Linney and Liam Neeson in full-blown Pilgrim-wear.) At first, you might be a bit taken aback by the plain-clothed actors on the stage, but then, ask yourself: don’t we live in yet another time of witch-hunts and finger-pointing blame? The director’s interpretation manages to make the experience simultaneously historic and resonant.

I am not as enthusiastic about the set, which, while more accessorized than von Hove’s “A View from The Bridge,” is comprised primarily of a large blackboard and a card table replete with coffee pot and paper cups. Go figure. And the “score” by Philip Glass, which drones throughout, did not seem entirely necessary.

What does work here are the performances: Ben Whishaw, who you may recognize from television’s “The Hour” and “London Spy,” and as Q in the Bond films, is excellent as John Proctor. He cuts a less powerful figure than Neeson or Daniel Day Lewis, who portrayed the accused farmer in the film. But Whishaw has a gorgeous voice and a more contemporary kind of stature and integrity. Sophie Okonedo, whose last performance on Broadway (“Raisin in the Sun”) earned her the Tony, should receive a nomination once again. Thank heaven for color-blind casting.

The name most heavily advertised in the production is that of Saiorse Ronan, the recently Oscar nominated star of “Brooklyn.” She does a fine job as ‘head witch’ Abigail, though she seems to spend long moments on stage watching the action. The direction seems aimless at times, particularly in the second act, when the men of the courtroom move awkwardly in circles. I am sure there is method there, but I didn’t always catch it.

In that second act, Ciaran Hinds and Teagle F. Bougere add new life and welcome energy, Whishaw and Okonedo perform a powerful and heartbreaking scene, and Tavi Gevinson has nice moments as Mary Warren.

This is not lively theatre for the curious tourist or the restless attention span. But those who remain and commit can hear a pin drop for most of the two hours and 50 minutes. And if you admire Arthur Miller’s words, (“I cannot sleep for dreaming,” “You’ve taken my soul, leave my name”) the somewhat stilted, gray pallor of this production will hardly matter.

Miller told a story of the ‘way way back’ that was really about the ‘just then.’ And now, it is difficult not to draw parallels with the political scene currently engulfing the country. “Things have surely gone wild,” says one character. And when another observes that, “the devil is among us,” I, for one, was wondering how those bewitched teens knew about a particular candidate in 2016.