Toil and trouble

In Broadway production of “The Crucible,” Arthur Miller’s witches smolder and terrify

Fronted by a stellar cast, a new revival of Miller’s iconic play highlights the vulnerability and power of Salem’s young women

Elizabeth Teeter, Saoirse Ronan, Tavi Gevinson, Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut and Erin Wilhelmi in a scene from "The Crucible". (Photo: Jan Versweyveld)

During the second act of The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s canonical 1953 play about the Salem witch trials, the ill-fated John Proctor tries to assure his wife that his former lover has moved on from their affair. “John, grant me this,” Elizabeth Proctor says in return. “You have a faulty understanding of young girls.”

This particular trope—the perilous underestimation of young girls—emerges in full, haunting force during a new production of The Crucible, which recently began its run on Broadway. Directed by Ivo van Hove, the revival brings together a magnificent cast fronted by Ben Whishaw, Saoirse Ronan, Ciarán Hinds, and Sophie Okonedo. The direction is evocative and the performances are scorching. By the final act, several members of the audience had broken out into sobs.

The Crucible’s narrative begins with Reverend Samuel Parris (Jason Butler Harner) standing over his daughter Betty, who had fallen into a stupor after participating in a midnight dance with other girls from the town. Rumors of witchcraft begin to crackle and spread. The suspected “witches” are led by Ronan’s Abigail Williams, a scheming and desperate teenager who was spurned by John Proctor (Whishaw). Ronan is masterful in this role. Even when she moves into the background of a scene, she smolders with the anger and resentment, fear and opportunism that drive her character to accuse dozens of people of satanic worship. In a haunting scene, she and Betty stand on chairs, twitching, and convulsing, and screaming out names of people they have seen consorting with the devil. And so the finger-pointing goes haywire. 

Ben Whishaw and Tavi Gevinson in a scene from "The Crucible." (Photo: Jan Versweyveld)

Ben Whishaw and Tavi Gevinson in a scene from “The Crucible.” (Photo: Jan Versweyveld)

Chief among the wrongly accused are Elizabeth and John Proctor. Sophie Okonedo gives a powerful performance as Elizabeth, a woman determined to maintain her moral rectitude, but shattered by the misfortune that falls upon her family. Wishaw plays John, a desperate voice of reason in the face of mass hysteria, with tremendous force. As the Proctors are drawn into the vortex of fear-mongering, ulterior motives emerge: Abigail is out for vengeance, the wealthy Thomas Putnam (Thomas Jay Ryan) seeks to dispose of his neighbors so he can accrue more land. Important men in the community expand their influence, jailing and issuing death sentences on a whim.

The Crucible was famously written as an allegory of McCarthyism and an invective against the anti-communist hysteria that swept the United States during the cold war era. These political overtones still resonate; one need look no further than current election blustering to understand how fear and religious zeal can be deployed to toxic effects. But van Hove does not seem to have been particularly concerned with harping on these contemporary parallels, as the production’s set and costumes lack any temporal specificity. Instead, the play’s directorial choices highlight another theme: the simultaneous weakness and power of the young women at the center of the narrative. 

Van Hove’s production opens with a brief prologue set in a classroom. A group of girls sit at desks with their backs to the audiences. A chalkboard, flanked by two intercoms, has been etched with “The Dutiful Child’s Promise,” a Puritan invocation. Florescent lights glare overhead. All of the play’s action takes place in this classroom, and though the setting is never acknowledged, it informs other elements of the production. While the bulk of the cast dresses in muted, unremarkable clothing, for example, Abigail and Co. wear schoolgirl’s uniforms.

Seeing the girls in knee-socks and pleated skirts, we are reminded of their youth and vulnerability. They do, in fact, operate on the margins of society. Abigail is an orphan and a housekeeper. The impressionable Mary Warren (Tavi Gevinson, who gives a spirited performance, but can’t quite manage to become anything other than Tavi Gevinson) is a maid too. When important men attack them with accusations of witchcraft, they have little choice but to direct the blame elsewhere.

Saoirse Ronan in a scene from "The Crucible." (Photo: Jan Versweyveld)

Saoirse Ronan in a scene from “The Crucible.” (Photo: Jan Versweyveld)

And yet, the entirety of the production is set in the girls’ domain: the classroom. It’s an apt choice, because the young witches are the driving force of the narrative, twisting and manipulating the town elders, whipping the community into a panic. Abigail, in particular, backs away from allegations of witchcraft until she discovers that she can transform these accusations into a source of control. She is a double agent of the devil, and thus one of few people who can help her frantic community root out the evil within.

As if to make this unnerving influence clear, van Hove depicts and amplifies supernatural occurrences referenced in the play’s dialogue. At the risk of revealing too much—these scenes are wonderful to behold—I will say that characters levitate, flames burst, and winds howl. Like the Puritans of Salem, the audience is sucked into hallucinations of hellfire. We too come under the terrible power of Miller’s witches. 

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