Van Hove Emphasizes the Otherworldly in Stark ‘Crucible'

If Ivo van Hove is thinking one thing tonight, it’s probably: “Finally! Elbow room!”

The Belgian director, saluted this season for minimalist and tightly confined stagings of “A View From the Bridge” and David Bowie’s “Lazarus,” spreads out—all across the vast Walter Kerr Theatre—with another play by Arthur Miller, “The Crucible.”

His cast includes two-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan (“Brooklyn”), as a perhaps-possessed schoolgirl, alongside heavy-hitters Ben Whishaw, Sophie Okonedo and Ciarán Hinds.

Curiously, the expansive Kerr stage has the effect of diminishing the anxiety in Miller’s 1953 play, a fictionalized story about the Salem witch trials viewed as an allegory for the Red Scare of the mid-20th century. While there are outstanding performances in Van Hove’s interpretation, I never felt the sense of snowballing paranoia I’d been expecting.

This “Crucible” begins with a brief overture: the curtain rises on seated schoolgirls, chanting. We’re seeing young women forced to learn things by rote—things they may not necessarily believe. A blackboard reads: “The promises of dutiful children,” with a list beneath of notions (“Honor God”) about to fly out the door.

In van Hove fashion, the design is contemporary. Institutional fluorescent lights illuminate a stark classroom, with a tiny sink and tilt-out windows. Characters wear modern, monochromatic garb. Grim Philip Glass music spills through loudspeakers.

Ronan is convincing as chief mean girl Abigail Williams, with her mouth set in a hard line and her eyes narrowed. I liked her performance, but didn’t necessarily see Abigail as someone capable of whipping up the frenzy relied on in “The Crucible.” The adults in this play won’t even consider the possibility this scorned gal is fabricating tales?

Abigail and her friends may be practicing witchcraft, or Abigail may be concocting an elaborate story as a way of punishing Whishaw’s John Proctor, her one-time employer and lover. I was more admiring of the excellent Tavi Gevinson (“This Is Our Youth”), as Mary Warren, the classmate with a conscience.

While I’m confident Miller believed in the power of mankind to manipulate and be manipulated, I’m rather sure his “witch hunt” was metaphorical. Theatrical flourishes here—girls suspended in mid-air, windstorms, what appears to be a wolf wandering alone on stage (in fact, it’s a rare dog breed)—suggest van Hove prefers it an open-ended question.

That added an unanticipated layer to the nearly three-hour proceedings.

Whishaw (“Q,” in recent James Bond movies) was compelling as a guilt-ridden farmer who refuses to be manipulated, then pivots, but finally is more concerned with his legacy than his life.

Okonedo (“A Raisin in the Sun”) is appealing, as always, maintaining a guarded posture as she is caught up in the shifting events. Hinds (Big Daddy, in 2013’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” revival) is imposing as a pompous judge.

I was moved by the way Gevinson’s Mary Warren and Bill Camp’s Rev. Hale undergo their moral evolutions. We need to see them as confused but essentially good people—and in these fine performances, we do.

As alluded, I never did get the sense an epidemic of hysteria was brewing. I struggled at the end to even remember why the Proctors had been implicated in a witch hunt. Oh, yes: He has too relaxed an attitude about religion; she may be using a tiny knit “poppet” as a vessel of evil.

To survive “The Crucible,” characters must admit to something false, or be condemned as witches. While Van Hove’s “Bridge,” last fall, felt like an homage, “The Crucible” feels like a serious reinterpretation. Follow through on the director’s otherworldly implications, and champions of Arthur Miller may find more to worry about than just Communists.

“The Crucible,” through July 17 at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St. Tickets: $42-$149. Call 877-250-2929.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn

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