I confess that at the intermission of the intriguing production of The Crucible at the Walter Kerr Theatre, I was full of questions. Why is this set in a modern day schoolroom? Why are these people dressed like our neighbors when their speech clearly marks them as from another century? Why are Ben Whishaw and Sophie Okonedo playing John and Elizabeth Proctor? By the end, I had my answers, and I can’t promise they’re what director Ivo Van Hove intended, only what I put together myself.
Let’s start with that setting: an institutional classroom like you would see in a parochial school that is past its prime, the windows and institutional lighting bathing the room in harsh, bleak light. The curtain rises on a group of schoolgirls sitting in rows of desks, their backs to us, facing the blackboard on which are drawn trees and houses around a catechism of simple commandments that all girls can follow. The girls sing a vaguely spiritual tune. It might remind you that The Crucible is taught in classrooms to this day and of all the messages and meanings we’ve gleaned from our teachers about how Arthur Miller wrote this as a savage indictment against McCarthyism. Plus, there is something sacrosanct about a classroom: the neat rows of desks, the teacher’s desk in the corner, the institutional accouterments. Over the course of the play, this pristinely dull room will be ravaged in keeping with the destruction of the society around it.
The curtain falls for a moment on the schoolgirls, and when it rises the desks have been moved around, the girls are gone, and Reverend Samuel Parris, in modern dress, is tending to his unconscious daughter Betty. The story proper has begun. As the schoolroom fills with concerned parents, each with his or her own agenda, and sullen girls worried about getting in trouble for being caught out in forbidden behavior in the woods, I thought about the various plots and machinations that occur in a modern school community: the administration imposing a thick bureaucracy over all, the officers of the PTA vying for power, the cliques and secrets that form between schoolgirls. Coming from the public school system myself, I can only imagine how more tricky it becomes when you add religion to the mix. In The Crucible, nearly everyone cloaks their baser needs in a mantle of moral fervor. Bad luck, such as losing child after child at birth, becomes a Satanic plot against you. (And how convenient it would be if the person who lay that curse on you is also in dispute with you over property rights!) Girls and women, who have no voice in public affairs, become prime movers in spiritual ones. Of course, they become victims too: the well-meaning Giles Corey questions his wife’s desire to read and, in effect, sends her to the gallows.
Reverend Parris (an affecting Jason Butler Harner) is full of torment at the start of the play. He is furious that his position as Salem’s spiritual leader doesn’t pay more. He is resentful that his “fire and brimstone” sermons aren’t playing well to the house. Even Abigail Williams, his own niece, has been seen giggling during his speeches. And now he has caught Abigail with his own daughter and several other girls in the woods, dancing and cavorting with his slave Tituba, playing at summoning the forces of nature to do their bidding. Except, of course, for Abigail it wasn’t play at all.
It was thrilling to see Saoirse Ronan, the bright young film star, enter as Abigail. Yet through much of the play she merely stands and watches. She is still very much a girl here, not yet a woman, and in this modern day version, the vileness of John Proctor’s choice to turn to her for sexual satisfaction while his wife was sick is more than clear. And perhaps it’s fitting that Ben Whishaw’s Proctor is so slender and, well, small, unlike the powerful men who have played the role on stage (Arthur Kennedy, Liam Neeson) and film (Daniel Day Lewis). It makes his regretted liaison with Abigail seem meaner and dirtier. As played on this stage, Proctor still feels lust in his heart for the girl and can’t forgive himself for it. Still, throughout the first act, I kept thinking that Whishaw, whom I have admired so much on film, did not have the stage “oomph” to fill Proctor’s shoes.
I felt a similar disconnect with Sophie Okonedo’s portrayal of Elizabeth. Her odd pants suit, her thick British brogue (sort of Cockney, I think), and her halting delivery did not conform to that established “washed out” smoothness of actresses like Beatrice Straight, Laura Linney and Joan Allen. She seemed uncomfortable in her skin, and for this viewer it only worked sporadically in the awkward first scene between her and Proctor as she realizes before he does that in the midst of the growing hysteria in Salem, Abigail has seized power and is gunning for her.
I sort of let my awkward feelings about the Proctors ride as I watched the growing machinations of the witch scare, led by an amazing Bill Camp as Reverend Hale, a role I played in a cutting of the show in high school. (I swear I thought Hale was the leading role then because that’s how our director cut it.) His transformation from a leading participant in this outrage to a horrified spectator, who can’t stop the Devil because he ultimately doesn’t have the right spiritual tools with which to do battle against him, is one of the most powerful arcs in the play. Camp performed it to perfection but in a different, quieter way than what I’ve seen before. Ronan’s Abigail is not the troubled vixen that Winona Ryder played in the film but a teenager who is sick of not getting her way right away, a symptom of today’s entitled younger generation that led further strength to this setting.
Ben Whishaw, Bill Camp, Tavi Gevinson and Ciaran Hinds
Two other performances deserve special mention out of a fine cast. Ciaran Hinds, the brilliant actor who has been in everything, reveled in his power over others as Deputy Governor Danforth. He resembled the coldest Assistant Principal you have ever met. The other role that took on really heartbreaking proportions from the start was Mary Warren, played by Tavi Gevinson with incredible heart and pathos. Mary is a girl drawn by so many impulses: to belong, to be good, to be liked. She is often played as soft, almost stupid, but Mary figures things out pretty quickly in each situation – when she has gone too far, and when she has chosen the wrong side, for instance. This simple servant girl becomes Proctor’s only hope for salvation, and in Gevinson’s strong portrayal, you can almost believe that this time, Mary will do the right thing. The fact that she can hold out with the truth against Hinds’ Danforth for so long makes you root for her. It makes the denouement of the climactic courtroom scene even more tragic when her betrayal occurs, as it inevitably must.
I remember when I saw the film that when Mary turned away from Proctor and accused him of witchcraft, the face on Winona Ryder’s Abigail was flooded with an “oh-oh” expression, as if she never intended to see Proctor hurt. Her plan, after all, is to get rid of her rival Elizabeth and egoistically expect John to then willingly fall into her bed. I thought at the time that this was an interesting choice, but given what happens in that courtoom, I can see how wrong it was. Plus, this gives Mary her moment, and Gevinson played it perfectly.
The rightness of casting Whishaw as John becomes plainly evident in that courtroom and is proven beyond doubt in the final scene where, brutalized to a point that he looks even smaller than before, he is given one last choice: confess your sins and name the other condemned as your accomplices (McCarthy’s way of legitimizing his monstrous program against Communism) or hang. Instead of seeing a dynamo like Neeson or Lewis click on the heroism, we watch a small man grow in stature, finding a sense of moral rightness inside himself that he thought had died long ago. This is not to denigrate the performances of the other two. It was different, but it was so very powerful. Okonedo’s last scene with him was stunning. You could see the two actors cooking together onstage. I’m not sure I finally embraced her performance as deeply as I did Whishaw’s, but I could understand by the end why this John would be willing to die for her and for his unborn child. Sometimes the need to redeem yourself in the eyes of those you love makes the impossible choice the only choice you can make.
P.S. Celebrity sitings galore in the audience:
The wonderful Carrie Preston (Good Wife, True Blood) was in the audience with her husband –
Michael Emerson (Lost, Person of Interest).
Raul Esparza (Company, Law and Order SVU) – looking hot!