The Crucible masterfully conjures empathy, profundity

By Justin Hopkins ‘07 || Contributing Writer

The Playbill cover features a photograph of John Proctor leaning over Abigail Williams, who lies back on a table. Her mouth open, her eyes closed, one hand blurred from motion, the other lying lightly on his arm, she looks like she likes her position. His brow furrowed, his visible hand flat on the table beside, not on her, he appears more conflicted, but I wouldn’t swear he hates where he is, either.

Worth noting, the picture differs, slightly, from the photo on the cover of the playbill distributed during previews. (I attended a performance early in previews, then just after opening night, and I will go once more later this month—you should too, if you can get tickets.) Same moment, but different angle, and to me, the former comes across as even more sexually suggestive than the latter. I wonder why the change.

The moment is certainly a crucial one, especially in this production. It is plain that this Proctor has hardly banished Abigail from his “soft” thoughts, as he admits, in words, but also and more so in action. Observe, he does not recoil from her touch on his back, as she recalls how he “sweated like a stallion whenever I come near!” He allows her to take his hands in hers, and to hug him, and while he doesn’t return the embrace, not until she speaks of his wife, “a cold, sniveling woman,” does he react against her advances, not merely “shaking her” as the script indicates, but pushing her onto the table for that photo op, a portrait of passionate (erotic?) violence. She clearly relishes the contact, and even he seems to struggle to release her and retreat again. The charged exchange powerfully establishes the theme of sexual guilt, an element arguably as important to this story of the 1690s Salem witch-hunts as the more popular (and not inaccurate) reading as a parallel of mid-20th century McCarthyism.

Indeed, that element may be more important in this, the fifth Broadway revival of The Crucible. As shown in his earlier work, both in New York and abroad (ask me about his six-hour compilation of Shakespeare’s Roman Tragedies: Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra, played in promenade, and without intermission—in Dutch—some of the most fun I’ve ever had in a theatre), director Ivo van Hove knows how to strip a classic script away from expectations, reducing it to its essentials, and reframing it in a way that forces its witnesses to encounter it afresh.

Here he and designers Jan Versweyveld (scene and lighting) and Wojciech Dziedzic (costumes) dispense with all but the barest hints of period piece—only the hymns and Psalms sung to Philip Glass’ relentlessly sober score evoke Puritanical New England. Instead they place the play in a more-or-less modern-day school, immediately apparent from the long blackboard that dominates the back wall, on which is sketched a tree, bare of leaves, and “A Child’s Proverb,” in script I cannot read. (Pay attention to that board—Tal Yarden’s projected video design imbues it with a life of its own.) The curtain rises, revealing all this, and six young women sitting at desks, their backs to the audience, singing, “For thou my shelter and strong fort.” After a brief beat, the curtain falls, before rising again on the first Act of the play. This prelude perfectly prepares the audience for a deconstructed, daring interpretation that deemphasizes the more traditional historical understanding in favor of a startling, searing portrayal of personal tragedy in the midst of political upheaval.

At the core are Ben Whishaw’s John and Sophie Okonedo’s Elizabeth Proctor, in performances every bit as excellent as their prominent predecessors, but vitally, dynamically distinct. I remember Liam Neeson and Laura Linney, the last Broadway Proctors (directed in 2002 by Richard Eyre), and they (and Daniel Day-Lewis and Joan Allen, in Nicholas Hytner’s 1996 film adaptation, too) more than capably conformed to conventions: John’s hot anger and Elizabeth’s cold resentment. Whishaw and Okonedo carry the conventions, but only so far—then they surpass them. Listen to their initial conversation. The quickness of the dialogue and their near-over-enthusiasm evidence the tension in their relationship, yet there is tenderness, too. Hurt by her suspicion, he turns away, and she tries to reassure him: “I never thought you but a good man, John” she insists, then, as the stage direction indicates “with a smile” and reaching out as if to playfully poke his ribs, “only somewhat bewildered.” And notice how John, after raging against Elizabeth’s arrest, succumbs to a fit of shakes when she surrenders. They love each other, without doubt. 

The pair finds fierce antagonism in Saoirse Ronan’s Abigail Williams. The hardness in her voice immediately imposes an awareness of her implacability, her strength of purpose. In his New York Times rave review, Ben Brantley observes how frightening Abigail is as she sits center-stage, back straight, staring down Tavi Gevinson’s quivering Mary Warren. True, but she scared me still more as she stood silently in the background, lurking by the blackboard, her arms crossed, seeming to look away, but really just waiting for her moment. Yet she is not without depth, dimensions. In an interview in Playbill, van Hove insists he wants us to sympathize with Abigail, and as she cowers on the ground after Proctor has pronounced her a whore, I do. Her face covered by her hair, her slight form shivers, and my heart goes out to the young woman who, I suppose, loved not wisely but too well. Then again, when she rises, she is resolute, her voice hard once more, ready to do what she must to prevail, and my pity flees as the terror returns.

Many others in this ensemble deserve praise for fine work: resisting listing, I simply must mention Ciarán Hinds’ casually menacing Judge Danforth, Jason Butler Harner’s paranoid Reverend Parris, Jim Norton’s hearty Giles Corey, and, perhaps most of all, Bill Camp’s increasingly harried Reverend Hale, who presents the paradox of the play as he kneels in front of Elizabeth Proctor and begs her to plead with her husband to confess and save his life: “Life, woman” his voice cracks as he stretches out his fingers to hover over Elizabeth’s pregnant belly, “is God’s most precious gift; no principle, however glorious, may justify the taking of it.”

Of course, ultimately, John Proctor disagrees, holding up his life-saving, but false confession to the sunlight streaming through the windows, and tearing it in half. Calmly, he walks back to his wife, and instead of, as the stage directions indicate, “lift[ing] her” he sits on the ground with her, and sings to her: “I am in bloody deeps sunk down…to deep waters I am come where floods me overflow.” He leaves her, and van Hove offers one last precise and piercing adjustment to the text: the others leave too, and Elizabeth, alone, rather than “supporting herself against collapse,…and with a cry” stands, and speaks steadily and straight out to us: “He have his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him!” Her direct and decisive address refuses to release us from any attempt at distancing from the devastation.

Sure, it’s fair to focus on the social commentary present in this play. Van Hove’s contemporary setting necessarily prompts reflection on how the threat of oppressive and absolutist ideology continues, though thankfully diminished in the last three hundred years. Yet he also brilliantly challenges our supposedly more sophisticated perception of the hysteria in a pair of sequences whose shocking impact I will not spoil, but which made me wonder whether there weren’t more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

But finally, van Hove, with his cast, crafts a tale as potent for its individual gestures as for its grand spectacle. Watch Whishaw’s foot as Danforth questions Proctor: “When the Devil came to you did you see Rebecca Nurse in his company?” Rebecca sits just behind John, and his foot, which twitched wildly while he lied for himself, goes stock still as he refuses to lie for her.  Or consider the long silence between John and Elizabeth as they meet for the last time. Miller’s script is beautifully poetic: “It is as though they stood in a spinning world. It is beyond sorrow, above it.” Van Hove’s direction is purely practical: John walks slowly upstage, fetches a cup of water, and brings it back to her, and they share it. I, myself, make the sound Miller describes as coming from John’s throat —“a strange soft sound, half laughter, half amazement”— as I attempt not to weep too loudly at this gutting manifestation of their caring, their reconciliation at the edge of the end.

Justin Hopkins ‘07 is the Assistant Director of the Writing Center. His email is  justin.hopkins@fandm.edu

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