Of some 100 productions of The Crucible scheduled this year in the US, director Ivo van Hove’s eerie, often enigmatic but periodically powerful Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s most frequently produced play stands out in several ways. It boasts a strong cast of British and Irish stars – including Ben Whishaw and Sophie Okonedo – and it’s the only one to feature a live wolf.
It’s actually a Tamaskan, a rare breed of dog that looks like a wolf and it walks the rubble-strewn stage of the Walter Kerr Theatre alone at the top of Act II, hitting all its marks like a pro.
It’s a scene reminiscent of a horror movie and there are several other such touches from van Hove, the aggressively avant-garde artist who has become familiar to New York theatergoers recently, with past productions including Lazarus, David Bowie’s first and only musical, and A View from the Bridge. Unlike the cleanly abstract approach that he took with the previous Miller play, the director’s choices for The Crucible are more particular, and sometimes peculiar.
Jan Versweyveld’s set is a modern classroom, and his costumes include school uniforms for the girls. The production dabbles in the supernatural – at one point, the black curtain rises on a lifeless girl floating ghostlike in mid-air, then quickly falls again. As bewitching as these theatrical effects can be, they wind up distracting if not detracting from Miller’s text, which is a meticulously researched account of the mass hysteria that occurred during the 17th century Salem witch trials.
Saoirse Ronan does strong work as the angry adolescent instigator Abigail, as does Tavi Gevenson as her eventual accomplice Mary Warren, and Jim Norton, as Giles the comically foolish old man who becomes a principled hero. In the final 15 minutes, Whishaw’s John Proctor and Okonedo’s Elizabeth Proctor make us feel the real horror in The Crucible – the choice forced upon them between staying honest and staying alive. Whishaw’s guilt and indecision play out in the zig-zag of his movements, while there is real agony in Okonedo’s tear-stained face, and though the original Philip Glass composition that underscores the dialogue seems at times to be competing with it, the performances win out.