First Nighter: Ivo van Hove Skews Arthur Miller's "The Crucible"

It's only a few months since Ivo van Hove brought his startlingly strong production of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge from London to Broadway. On its heels -don't forget the View From the Bridge cast performed in bare feet--he's directed The Crucible, Miller's sly take on the 1950s House Un-American Activities Committee hearings and placed it in the Walter Kerr Theatre.

For A View From the Bridge van Hove honored the debt to Greek tragedy influences that Miller regularly owned up to. As a result, he presented a stripped-down approach that required the audience to sit on three sides of the spare, square playing area. That way he could approximate the curved shape of an ancient theater, and his conceit worked beautifully.

The notion was, however, a departure from van Hove's usual look at revivals, of which he's done many to date--Henrik Ibsen, Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams and Lillian Hellman among the revered playwrights he's chosen to, uh, refresh.

As near as I can tell, van Hove's more frequent tactic is acknowledging dramatic subtext and elevating it to text level. For instance, if the adults in O'Neill's More Stately Mansions are childish, he had the actors behave like children. If in A Streetcar Named Desire Blanche DuBois likes to bathe, van Hove kept her in the tub beyond the call of stage directions.

(Let's interrupt this review to say that van Hove's directorial response isn't one that many playwrights would appreciate, but selected so far aren't with us to complain, are they?)

For The Crucible, it feels as if van Hove has reverted to his previous attack, although I'm not sure I know what subtextual element(s) he's stressing. I do have a hunch, though, and it certainly involves the costumes Wojciech Dziedzic has the actors wearing.

They're in modern dress for all but the final scenes when John Proctor (Ben Whishaw) and wife Elizabeth (Sophie Okonedo) are brought from the jail where they've been mistreated and he's been tortured. They're in rags to confront each other before possibly going to the gallows for denying they've dealt in witchcraft. Moreover, most of the women in the troupe appear in long, straight and usually blond hair, which is today's prominent Jennifer Aniston-popularized coiffeur of choice.

Modern dress, of course, conjures thoughts of the 20th-century timeframe to which Miller refers in his political allegory. In line with that, nothing in van Hove's production reflects the look of New England during the 16th century. Indeed, the only reminder of the outdoors is brief and happens when nature erupts and violent winds blow through the stage right windows on designer Jan Versweyveld's set. (Versweyveld also designed the lighting, much of which is thrown by overhead fixtures.

The set is a large and somber institutional room with ominous radiators high on an upstage wall featuring a blackboard. As much as anything else, the room could be a rehearsal hall and the blackboard--on which, from what I could tell, are scrawled harsh statements about proper community living--could be handy for a director's notes.

With the suggestion of a rehearsal space, the upshot is--van Hove can't have meant this--that the cast members aren't so much giving a performance of Miller's Crucible as they are in the process of rehearsing it.

Furthering that implication is the ensemble's static playing as they deliver the story of the Salem witch hunts, when Abigail Williams (a determined Saoirse Ronan), mightily piqued after John Proctor has cut off their extramarital affair, names Elizabeth Proctor a witch and incites her pubescent friends to include in their accusations of witchcraft every local woman whom they dislike.

Although flurries of activity occur as the agitated girls go into their trance--Stephen Hoggett saw to the undulating movement--most of the actors stand around when Deputy Governor Danforth (a very stern Ciarán Hinds) arrives to be judge and jury at the ad hoc court. His vituperations are supported by gospel-spouting Reverend Samuel Parris (Jason Butler Harner) and initially by itinerant Reverend John Hale (Bill Camp).

To make his thinly veiled point about government malfeasance, Miller dreamed up quite a plot. In it the righteous Proctors--he's clearly a man of personal faith, although he isn't always in church of a Sunday--slowly become embroiled in the evil-cloaked-as-good melee. This, despite the hope that their working girl, Mary Warren (Tavi Gevinson), will stick to the truth about never observing the Proctors socializing with the Devil.

For the scarifying drama Van Hove has rounded up a strong troupe, which also includes Tina Benko, Brenda Wehle (her wig is grey), Jim Norton and Jenny Jules as Tituba, who's believed to be the instigator of the Hades heyday. They all do their best within the limitations van Hove imposes.

And a few words about Ben Whishaw whom I saw as a worthy Hamlet at the Old Vic some years ago when he was in his early twenties. A the time Whishaw was announced to play John Proctor, he seemed a curious choice. A slight fellow--familiar to movie audiences as Q from the recent Bond films and an off-Broadway vet for The Pride, he didn't seem to have the sort of gravitas required.

To some extent that's the outcome at the Walter Kerr. He does possess the emotional power of a man questioning his intellectual and spiritual environment as well as the actions that compromised his marriage. What he lacks here is the ability to take full command of the play.

On the other hand, that may be another instance of van Hove's preferring to spotlight subtext. Van Hove may consider Proctor a small man, despite his apparent heft as a threatened character: hence Whishaw.

When Miller wrote The Crucible, the political climate was troubled. By 2016 the mid-20th century troubles have passed, but new ones have arisen to which the play remains relevant. Perhaps Miller's somehow sad achievement is that as society evolves, The Crucible will continue relevant to whatever is unfolding at whatever era.