The fact that Saoirse Ronan was starring as Abigail Williams in Ivo van Hove’s stage revival of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible was all I needed to know about the Broadway production Salem Witch Trial story before begging my mom to buy tickets. For those of you who are not familiar with Ivo van Hove, he is the visionary behind the groundbreaking resurrection of another Miller classic: The Glass Menagerie. This production was acclaimed by critics and audiences alike, so it’s no wonder that van Hove’s Crucible was so eagerly anticipated.
When I actually went to see the show, it was still in previews. Nonetheless, the theater was packed. I suppose that the first red flag should’ve been the Playbill, which showed a distressed Ronan pinned to a school desk by this production’s John Proctor, Ben Whishaw. A school desk? But I didn’t notice. I guess I was too excited to be transported into seventeenth century Puritanical Massachusetts to realize that this interpretation would never take me there. For this reason, it came as a shock when the curtain rose on a typical modern classroom. Emphasis on modern. The stage was set with a chalkboard and rows of desks, which faced away from the audience and were occupied by singing school girls, whose eerie song set the tone quite effectively for the rest of the show. Then the curtain goes down and we are thrust into the action of the play- Betty’s sickness and whatnot. I would have to say that these are my favorite part of this adaptation; I loved that van Hove took the liberty to write in several creepy, dark snapshots, including the opening visual, to serve as transitions between the show’s acts and help to maintain the show’s uncertain supernatural theatricality.
I feel that these were particularly necessary given van Hove’s chosen setting for his interpretation. I know, a setting other than the given colonial witchfest sounds impossible given the show’s plot. After all, the setting is as integral to the play as the character of Abigail Williams herself. This is why I feel that van Hove’s schoolhouse location didn’t work. You couldn’t take Rent and set it in a children’s daycare facility just to put a fresher edge on a well known work, so it’s hard to justify van Hove’s placement of The Crucible in a high school (a Catholic one, presumably, given the costuming of Abigail and her minions as archetypical schoolgirls), especially because it’s so inconsistently adapted to this setting. As I mentioned before, Abigail and her friends are dressed in schoolgirl costumes, but none of the adults are dressed as teachers. They missed an opportunity for the setting to actually work by making John Proctor Abigail’s teacher somehow, but instead they just dressed him and the other characters in a fashion reminiscent of SLS’ Godspell production. It also just doesn’t fit when they talk about going off to farm the land while standing in what looks like a New Canaan High School classroom.
What makes this production worth seeing, however, has to be the performances. But it’s not even the top billed Ben Whishaw or Saoirse Ronan whose efforts captivate, it’s the supporting Sophie Okenodo and Tavi Gevinson who steal the show. However much you studied the book in English class, you won’t understand the true importance of Mary Warren or Elizabeth Proctor until you’ve seen these actors bring the roles to life.
In short, The Crucible’s most recent run on the stage doesn’t translate as well as it could, and is strained even more by the high expectations that are tied to the involvement of Ivo van Hove and Saoirse Ronan. If anything, though, go see it at least to be in the same room as Tavi Gevinson as she performs Mary Warren’s iconic meltdown.
–Jack Hobbs, Staff Writer