Saturday, April 02, 2016

Arthur Miller's The Crucible on Broadway

The Crucible, Arthur Miller's powerful 1953 drama, about the hysteria that sent twenty people to their deaths accused of being witches, is a play that most of us read in high school, and very few of us understood. Although its setting is the historical 1692 Salem witch trials in Colonial Massachusetts, what the author wants us to consider is that a witch hunt is a phenomenon that can occur anywhere and at any time. It was happening in America once more in the post World War II period. HUAC was busy blacklisting famous Hollywood screenwriters and directors, the so-called "Hollywood Ten" for their participation in the communist party, a sign that these individuals were dangerous to the well-being of the nation during the Cold War. Meanwhile some notable actors and directors, such as Elia Kazan, Lucille Ball and Ronald Reagan accused some of their colleagues of being "reds," and won favor with the government and with the film industry. On the other hand, the careers of those who refused to cooperate with the committee were destroyed. The era of McCarthyism was an ugly eyesore in American history, and this seething cauldron was the inspiration for Miller to write this play. The communist hysteria that Joseph McCarthy fueled in the Cold War era was analogous to the theocracy that ruled seventeenth century New England, where the belief in the Devil and witchcraft was very much alive.

I've always wanted to see a production of this play done in the 1950s so that Arthur Miller's true intent in writing this work would shine through clearly for audiences. Now The Crucible comes to Broadway in a visionary production by the gifted Belgian director Ivo van Hove, who is no stranger to Arthur Miller's oeuvre having previously brought to the New York stage from London his Young Vic's production of A View from the Bridge. Once again, the director has removed the work from its historical setting and placed it, not just in the 1950s, but in seemingly modern times in a school room setting.  A chilling reminder that education can also become a breeding ground for intolerance. In this current election year, where presidential candidates are spewing anti-Islamic hatred, the cauldron is boiling once again, and Mr. Miller's play is more relevant than ever.

At first, you might think that Ben Whishaw is not your typical John Proctor (played in the original production by Arthur Kennedy), but his powerhouse performance assures us that the role is definitely his. He has a match in the incredible Sophie Okonedo, whose Elizabeth is a study of unrestrained emotions. The other two names above the title are Saoirse Ronan as Abigail (last seen on the big screen in the film Brooklyn) and Irish actor CiarĂ¡n Hinds (Governor Danforth), who was King Claudius in Benedict Cumberbatch's recent production of Hamlet. Is easy to criticize Mr. Hinds's performance as being stodgy, a bit stagy, even two-dimensional, but he leaves a lasting impression on the viewer getting the most he can out of the part. Ms. Ronan, with her pale face and those marvelous eyes in a fixed stare, is a powerhouse on stage. A star performer who nevertheless knows how to integrate herself to this ensemble cast.

The rest of the cast is particular strong, filled with many notable character actors. Chief among them is Irishman Jim Norton, whose Giles Corey is one of the most memorable creations in the ensemble. This is the fifth time that Mr. Norton and Mr. Hinds have been in a play together (they both appeared at the National Theatre with Mr. Cumberbatch in Hamlet), and it is great to have such talent available on both sides of the Atlantic.

Driving the drama forward is Philip Glass's minimalist, almost subliminal score, written especially for this production. Mr. Glass once again proves that less is more, and his music expertly accentuates the on-stage drama.

In such an avant-garde production it is somewhat comforting to find the proverbial kitchen sink upstage (is this a joke?), as well as a surprising cameo from an "actor" who I'm sure has a stage name, but whose real identity is Canis lupus. His appearance will startle and chill you to the bone. I was happy to see that a current production of a play still utilizes a curtain, but even that traditional standby of the theater in Mr. van Hove's hands is used in a very special way. The final curtain call is handled in a manner that speaks volumes about how the events in the play do not just cease, they go on. The director has crafted a Crucible for our time, and the play itself continues to serve as a warning of what can happen when intolerance gets the best of us. This production aims to show us where America might be heading once again.

No comments: