Director Ivo van Hove continues his Broadway exploration of Arthur Miller — following last year’s highly praised View from the Bridge comes The Crucible, now on stage at the Walter Kerr. View was elegantly pared-down, sensationally taut, and ran 100 uninterrupted minutes. Crucible is nearly three hours (there’s a long intermission), and a veritable melting pot of theatrical ideas.
View, a play I never thought much of, emerged as transformed. Crucible is a far better work; it’s transformed here, too — but I’m not sure to what end.
I take as a given that van Hove is a major director. He’s a master at creating mood; also destabilizing audience expectations — the two often go hand-in-hand. Those skills are fully on view here, in a production with a contemporary, if ambiguous, setting. (The very large open space might be a town hall, or perhaps a church common room.) As Reverend Parris (Jason Butler Harner, in an uncommonly nuanced reading of the part) watches over his prone daughter, Betty, there’s a sense of tension and fragility — also, an eerie disquiet.
Nowhere is this more palpable than in this production’s John and Elizabeth Proctor, to my mind the real triumph of van Hove’s Crucible. The Proctors are often seen as the moral center of Miller’s play, and so they are here. But actors Ben Whishaw and Sophie Okonedo make them more complex, flawed — more human — than I’ve ever seen. Okonedo in particular is unforgettable — she imbues Elizabeth with a heartbreaking mix of fierceness and confusion; from the start, we perceive her as an outsider. There’s lovely work also from Tina Benko (as Ann Putnam), Bill Camp (Reverend Hale), and Jim Norton (a feisty, unusually funny Giles Corey).
Yet the acting more generally is a mixed bag, with some important roles – Tituba, Rebecca Nurse, Danforth — barely registering. (In Danforth’s case, actor Ciarán Hinds is sometimes inaudible.) Most damagingly, Saoirse Ronan and Tavi Gevinson turn the crucial characters of Abigail Williams and Mary Warren into a pair of Heathers. (Ronan is an actress of significant talent, but the one-note, evil-eye performance she gives here doesn’t enhance her reputation.)
The fault may be less Ronan and Gevinson than van Hove’s conception of the town girls, whose accusations of witchcraft drive the narrative. Seen here, they belong to an entirely different style – something like Les Revenants or The Shining… or, if you’re feeling particularly irritated, Mean Girls. The director and his design team capture The Crucible’s growing hysteria and terror with some absolutely stunning visuals — but they unsuitably evoke contemporary urban horror movies. (A smart friend even suggested to me that the takeaway from this Crucible is that the girls really are witches — that’s not how I interpreted it, but I certainly see that possibility.)
Compounding it all is a relentless score by Philip Glass. (Has no one told van Hove that Glass is no longer in any sense avant-garde, but rather the essence of middlebrow pretensions?)
The updating here also does no favors to the dialogue, which is a problematic mix of Millerian dogma and poeticized 17th Century speech (or what the playwright imagines that to be). A traditional historical setting at least gives it a logical context — here, the awkwardness is glaring.
On a larger scale, I’m still trying to figure out whether van Hove’s interpretations of Miller are enhancing the playwright’s reputation, or simply giving a gifted but idiosyncratic director a platform for reinvention. I was impressed with van Hove’s View from the Bridge, but also recognized that it largely removed from the play a sense of time and place, as well as some issues important to Miller around immigration, community, and working conditions. This Crucible — brilliant in some ways, silly and overwrought in others — is even more perplexing.
The Crucible performances are scheduled through July 17. For more information, see the website.