There’s bound to be head-scratching over Ivo van Hove’s peculiar Broadway production of “The Crucible,” Arthur Miller’s towering 1953 drama about the infamous 17th-century Salem witch trials — and so much more. The ensemble, led by Ben Whishaw, Sophie Okonedo, Ciaran Hinds, and Saoirse Ronan, is superb, and the play sustains its power to shock and thrill. But the directorial concept is baffling. In stripping down the context of “A View from the Bridge” earlier this season, van Hove did a brilliant job of isolating and illuminating the internal battle waged by its tormented hero to save his own soul. “The Crucible” resists that treatment. It’s too big, too complex, too philosophical to deconstruct and reduce to its “essence.”
On one level, the plot is about a strong-willed servant girl who avenges herself on her faithless lover and his wife. The characters in this triangle are played by Ronan (as the vengeful Abigail Williams), Whishaw (the guilt-ridden John Proctor) and the amazing Sophie Okonedo (Elizabeth Proctor, the wife he betrays). Although Whishaw seems a bit delicate for the strapping New England farmer he plays, these pivotal performances are so emotionally intense, they ensure that this triangle remains the centerpiece of the play.
Abigail is also the conduit for Miller’s hand-wringing views of postwar America. Like an unethical politician, she manipulates her pliable band of orphaned servant girls into a rapturous, unthinking mob. Playing on the religious mania of the town leaders, she convinces these gullible fools that devilish spirits are harming their children. Once caught up in the group hysteria, the pious elders in this stern patriarchal society see evil everywhere, and declare themselves judge, jury, and executioners of their neighbors.
Before the witch hunt gets completely out of control, a few reasonable people raise their voices in protest. Rebecca Nurse (a lovely performance from Brenda Wehle) realizes that the “bewitched” teenagers are in their “silly seasons” and cautions against looking for supernatural forces to blame for the things they fear. “Let us rather blame ourselves,” she advises, delivering a message that has resonance in the here and now.
The Reverend John Hale (Bill Camp, giving a marvelously nuanced performance) is another sensible voice crying in the wilderness. “We cannot look to superstition,” he warns.
By the time Deputy-Governor Danforth (Hinds, on a mission to make your blood run cold) arrives in Salem to oversee the witch trials and hangings, the city is gripped in hysteria. Pleas for mercy from poor, bereft Giles Corey (a heartbreaking Jim Norton) fall on deaf ears. As does the brave confession made by Mary Warren (Tavi Gevinson, making the most of her shining moment), one of the girls caught up in the mischief behind all this madness. But the tyrannical voice of Puritan authority has spoken, and the voice of reason is unable to silence its despotic ravings.
There are so many levels of meaning to the play that the directorial options seem infinite. But whatever van Hove had in mind remains abstruse.
The set alone (by Jan Versweyveld, who also designed the spectacular sets and lighting for “A View from the Bridge”) makes no sense. A silent prologue sets the play in a formal schoolroom with a wall of windows and rows of wooden desks facing a large blackboard on the rear wall. The class has its back to the audience, but the students are teenaged girls and they’re all dressed in identical school uniforms.
So much for that concept. The girls — Abigail and her posse — retain their school uniforms for the duration of the play. But there are no further references to classroom teaching or book learning or anything else of an educational nature. That wall of windows does serve a purpose, though, when Steven Hoggett, director of stage movement, wrangles the girls into “witchy” poses that are truly disturbing. (Are they really flying, or am I?)
Aside from that schoolroom, there are no further visual allusions to a specific place in time. The costumes, by Wojciech Dziedzic, are made of rough-hewn fabrics that look like linen or flax or hemp, but there’s not a button or bow or even a patch pocket to give us a clue as to period or country of origin. As for style, the clothing (for men as well as women) could have come off the racks at Eileen Fisher.
But rather than suggesting a universal time frame, this lack of specificity tells us we’re nowhere — not in 17th-century Salem, and nowhere else that might have been suggested by the text. Miller himself famously intended “The Crucible” to reflect the hearings (a.k.a the witch hunt for Commies) conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee that resulted in the Hollywood Blacklist. Here the courtroom interrogations conducted by the learned religious judges certainly have the tone of a Senate confirmation hearing. And there’s a powerful moment at the end of the first act — conducted to the softly thundering beat of Philip Glass’s original score — when the girls start “naming names” of the Salem “witches,” effectively delivering them to the gallows just as Hollywood talent informed on their best friends and fellow workers.
That was Miller’s subtext. It needn’t be taken as a directorial blueprint, but it should inspire contemporary creatives to submit their own proposals. In cutting “The Crucible” off from any recognizable context, van Hove doesn’t contribute.