“The Crucible,”’ More Haunting Now Than Ever

“The Crucible,”’ More Haunting Now Than Ever

I was in middle school the first time I ever saw a production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Then thirteen, I was several years younger than the girls whose claims that older women in the community were dealing in witchcraft sparked a chain reaction of upheaval and witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts. This fictionalized dramatization of real events that happened in the 1690s was originally written as an allegory for McCarthyism and debuted on Broadway in 1953. Now, 63 years later, The Crucible is back and I have to tell you, it is downright frightening watching this play as an adult. You see, I’m now around the age of John Proctor—the play’s male protagonist and an adulterer who had relations with Abigail Williams (leader of the teenage girl brigade of witch “experts”)—and the 20 years that have passed between seeing the show in person makes a world of difference. I never sided with the girls, even when I was one, but I better understand that power lies in numbers even when those numbers are founded in lies.

It is important to note that this fifth revival of one of the most iconic plays in the history of American theater is set in more modern times, adding an entirely new layer of political unrest to an already chilling plot. Though the words were written in the 1950s about something that happened three centuries prior, the themes are still so eerily relevant that I was squirming in my seat. I thought I knew this play backwards and forwards, but watching this latest take had me walking away with a new appreciation for the text, a euphoric feeling of being moved and a lot of anger. (Because how dare those girls lie like that? And this re-solidified the fact that I will never be okay with watching a room full of religious men discussing women’s bodies and mental health.)

Under the direction of Ivo van Hove, who also helmed the recent Broadway revival of Miller’s A View From the Bridge and the New York Theater Workshop’s David Bowie opus Lazarus, a talented ensemble keeps audiences engaged during the nearly three-hour runtime. (I’ve openly told friends and family I would gladly sit through eight hours of this play, so three hours flew by.) Two-time Academy Award nominee Saoirse Ronan makes her Broadway debut as Abigail and is so convincing as the young woman who makes others believe that there are witches among the townspeople that you’ll all but forget that this is the same sweet young woman from Brooklyn. Tavi Gevinson—a young Scarlett Johansson doppelgänger in both raspy voice and tiny, but fiercely strong, presence—plays conflicted fellow witch hunter Mary Warren with skilled poignancy.

And then there are the grownups. Ciarán Hinds makes my skin crawl as Deputy Governor Danforth while he looms over others and pontificates about events in a city that isn’t even his. Tony Award winner Sophie Okonedo has such poise on stage—her Elizabeth Proctor possesses grace and grit in equal measure, because these traits do go hand-in-hand, especially when one is a mother and respected member of the community.

But, and I fully admit my bias, it was Ben Whishaw I was most excited to see when I purchased my ticket. A longtime fan of his film work, I was curious how he would play John Proctor. (Because let’s face it, people are probably most familiar with Daniel Day-Lewis’s movie version. I know I was.) Whishaw’s range of emotions is always compelling on screen, but getting to witness his actions and reactions in person—every last twitch and purposeful step, however aggressive—is something I will hold in my heart for years to come. His entire performance is powerful and I was moved to tears seeing him deliver one of my favorite theater monologues of all time. Thank you, Ben Whishaw. Your name deserves to be among Tony nominees later this spring.

The Crucible is playing a limited engagement through July 17 at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

Photo ©Jan Versweyveld

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