Theater Review: Ivo van Hove’s The Crucible Heightens the Vitality of a Familiar Story

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Photo: Jan Versweyveld

According to one survey of high-school lit teachers, The Crucible by Arthur Miller is the most widely taught play, outside of Shakespeare, in American classrooms. (A Raisin in the Sun and Death of a Salesman follow.) Given the way it’s almost universally presented — as a point-by-point mapping of the McCarthy “witch hunts” of the 1940s and ’50s onto the actual witch trials of Puritan Salem in 1692 — it’s probably received by most students, no less than by most theater critics, as cod-liver oil, more medicinal than entertaining. Reviews of the 1953 Broadway premiere highlighted Miller’s political passion and daring; the play was certainly a response to, and a kind of baiting of, the House Un-American Activities Committee. But to many, the passion was achieved at the cost of theatrical imagination. George Jean Nathan called The Crucible “an honorable sermon” whose sting had been “disinfected with an editorial tincture.”

I wonder what Nathan (and generations of American sophomores) would make of the gripping, emotional revival, directed by the Belgian avant-gardist Ivo van Hove, that opened tonight at the Walter Kerr. (Kerr himself called the play a “mechanical parable” that “lives not in the warmth of humbly observed human souls but in the ideological heat of polemic.”) They would of course recognize the story; the text has been slightly edited, with the permission of the Miller estate, but unless you recently reread it, you would hardly notice the disappearance of a few minor characters, such as the homeless woman Sarah Good. It is still a brilliant demonstration of the hysteria to which a repressive society is susceptible, as trumped-up charges of witchcraft ignite a disastrous series of betrayals.

But even on paper it is more than a “demonstration.” Part of the moral beauty of the play is its alertness to the ambiguities of blame for those charges: Does the trouble begin with Abigail Williams, the precocious 17-year-old caught dancing in the woods with four other girls in a manner the Puritans consider prima facie diabolical? Or is Abigail, who immediately rats on the black servant, merely an intermediary link in the chain? For as surely as the infection extends outward into the public sphere, bringing down even the town’s most valued citizens, it also extends inward and backward, implicating individual relationships and psychopathology. Abigail’s hysteria, we quickly learn, is fundamentally romantic. Still in love with John Proctor, a married man who “knew” her but then cast her out, she hopes to regain his affection by eliminating the competition. “She thinks to dance with me on my wife’s grave,” Proctor says grimly of Abigail’s accusations.

So is John Proctor to blame? Or, taking a step even further back, is his wife, Elizabeth? (She’s dour.) Or is the external pressure of the powerful — the arriviste reverend, the imperious deputy governor who descends on Salem to conduct the trials — more salient? One by one, the play tests each individual who comes into contact with the superheated situation. Some are merely venal or cowardly, but some buckle in order to protect others, and one, in a classic Miller moment, takes the high road for a low reason. It is not only the bad who behave badly, The Crucible demonstrates. Good people are inevitably implicated, if only by their attempts at passivity.

This atmosphere of contagion and moral panic obviously parallels that fomented by HUAC; Miller was inspired to write the play after his friend Elia Kazan “named names” in 1952. But at the same time, Miller’s deliberate distortions of the Salem record usually complicate rather than support the parallels. (Proctor is younger and Abigail older than their historical antecedents, presumably to activate the sexual component of the story.) Indeed, it’s difficult to fathom how the plot itself, with its keenly psychological bent, could be reduced so simplistically to the mere parable often seen by critics (and teachers). Certainly van Hove’s production does everything possible to foreground the human questions, partly by neutralizing the exotic specifics. It is set (by Jan Versweyveld) in a schoolroom, albeit one so vast and cold it looks like a repurposed New England warehouse. Wojciech Dziedzic’s costumes, while by no means period, are modest enough to avoid suggesting that physical comfort and freedom are part of the world these characters inhabit. And van Hove (working with the choreographer Steven Hoggett) does wonderful things with his staging, especially of the teenage girls. They disperse and clump for warmth like bats, an image that suggests both virality and vulnerability. Through such choices we understand Miller’s irony that those accused of wielding demonic power are those who have none of the regular kind.

If van Hove’s directorial choices generally support and enliven the text, and force us to see it fresh, it’s not because he has abandoned his avant-garde armamentarium. This Crucible features plenty of his signature flourishes, some more effective than others. As in his recent production of A View From the Bridge, he overdoes the mood music, here an original score by Philip Glass that gets annoying fast. Literalists may not like the intrusions of magic in the form of some nifty video and special effects; I heard some audience members complain that these effects muddied Miller’s argument by suggesting that witchcraft really occurred. (I wouldn’t have thought a production needed to immunize itself against such an interpretation!) For me, the effects not only demonstrated the mental state of those transported by hysteria, but extended it, viscerally, to the audience. Even the arrival at the beginning of the second act of a character not mentioned in the script made sense to me as a way of reawakening our imaginations to horror. In van Hove’s vision of Miller’s world, the distinctions between human and inhuman, between animate and inanimate, are always collapsing. When the act curtain on more than one occasion went up then quickly down before rising once more, as if by itself, it seemed to be saying to us: Look again.

On the occasions that van Hove’s ideas have become problematic, it’s because they have replaced or obscured the interpersonal conflict that fuels most plays. In his version of The Little Foxes for New York Theatre Workshop in 2010, for instance, the formidable cast seemed entirely secondary to a concept involving live video. That’s not a problem here (nor was it in A View From the Bridge). Ben Whishaw and Sophie Okonedo, as the Proctors, give wrenching performances, shorn of vanity, as if the play’s message of communal guilt had infected them personally. As the deputy governor, Ciarán Hinds does a bit of Pacino-style word swallowing but nevertheless offers a richly complicated portrait of the vanity of power. (One way The Crucible doesn’t track with the Red Scare* is that this character is so much smarter than Joseph McCarthy.) In important supporting roles, Jason Butler Harner, Tina Benko, Thomas Jay Ryan, Brenda Wehle, Bill Camp, and Jim Norton all make strong impressions while being dragged down by the whirlpool of communal rage. But it seems as if van Hove could not decide how he wanted to interpret the girls. Saoirse Ronan as Abigail suggests no real excuse for her cold manipulations: She just shines with maleficence. And as Mary Warren, the girl who vacillates about the truth, Tavi Gevinson (who is just 19 herself) does not quite convince us on either side of her story.

She’s heartbreaking anyway; that’s the power of Miller’s writing. I think the mistake critics and teachers often make about The Crucible is that they read it like a novel, and sometimes it’s staged that way, all bonnets and doublets. Van Hove sweeps all that away, letting us feel more strongly the role the play’s overwhelming structural brilliance plays in locking us down. It’s not that Miller isn’t interested in characters, it’s that he sees society as a kind of Über-character, and not a very magnanimous one. (HUAC revoked his passport to attend the play’s 1954 London opening.) The result isn’t medicinal, it’s terrifying, when done right. This is the first production of The Crucible I’ve seen in which the devil, which is to say us collectively, is really given his due.

The Crucible is at the Walter Kerr Theater through July 17.

*This review originally misidentified the composer of the original score and contained a historical inaccuracy. We regret the errors.