It’s an earthy play, that’s usually set in the late 17th century, recalling some of the names and actual events of the Salem witch trials of that period. Most theatre people know, that Arthur Miller intended it as a McCarthyism allegory when he wrote it, and its dialogue involving the naming of names makes that quite clear. I’ve seen productions of this classic before, but never one quite so busy or visually stylized. That technique doesn’t always work here, I’m afraid. I’m not certain the impressive gimmick of actual flight, is quite as haunting as the suggestion of same. It is staged like an afterthought, and is somewhat intrusive to the narrative. The mood it sets is palpable, however. Reams of debris later blowing in through a window, and an intricate lighting design (Tony nominated work from Jan Versweyveld), enhance that atmosphere too. Director Ivo van Hove has garnered plenty of praise for his Miller adaptations this season, with this, along with his earlier run of “A View From a Bridge” both grabbing Tony noms for Best Revival of a Play. He’s known for his experimental and avant garde work, so subtlety is largely absent. But he certainly brings this version of the 1953 classic to its earned, emotionally smashing conclusion.
The Salem witch trials of the early 1690’s is one of the most infamous cases of mass hysteria in Colonial America. Its aftermath resulted in hundreds of arrests, and a score of executions. John Proctor (a cast against type, but superb Ben Whishaw), is a married, hard-working farmer and father. Considered an honorable man, there remains a secret scar on his reputation, involving a dalliance with the young, alluring Abigail Williams (a fine, but somewhat underwhelming Saoirse Ronan, making her Broadway debut). When the daughter of Reverend Samuel Parris (solid Jason Butler Harner) is found motionless, but alive, a rumor begins to swirl. Witchcraft is suspected, as a group of teenage girls were seen performing some sort of ritual in the woods. Although Abigail Williams is purported to be the ringleader, a local Barbados slave named Tituba (an effective Jenny Jules) is questioned about possibly taking them through some sort of malevolent service. The Reverend John Hale (an excellent, and Tony-nominated for Featured Actor, Bill Camp) is brought in as an expert on the subject of witches and demons, and Abigail feels cornered, when accusations of naked dancing, and the drinking of chicken blood, rise to the forefront. We soon witness Abigail threatening the girls to stick to a simple story of playful frolicking, including the apparently faking Betty Parris (Elizabeth Teeter). When all comes to a head, and punishment appears imminent, the girls put on an act of possession, in the attempt to save themselves from persecution. While their contemporary Mary Warren (a tremulous and wonderful Tavi Gevinson) is poised to expose their deceit, dozens of citizens are arrested for dabbling in the devil’s work. Soon, Proctor’s loyal wife Elizabeth (a marvelous Sophie Okonedo, now nominated for Best Leading Actress in a Play) is named, and taken away. The arrogant Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth (a strong Ciarin Hinds), is brought in to try the imprisoned locals–with mass execution a distinct possibility.
Great pains are taken here to give the experience a modern, yet almost timeless feel, with non-distinct clothing, and a stark classroom setting, featuring a “lively” blackboard centerpiece. The emotions, however, are kept grounded, piercing and real, even as gadgets like lasers and wind machines threaten to overwhelm the production. I adored the schoolhouse set, by the way. It stays in place for the entire 2 hour-and-45 minute run time, with occasional minor adjustments. This serves to accentuate the fact that Miller’s play is the most commonly studied one in learning institutions across the United States. But the desk-and-chair filled stage actually works to free the production of this sometimes stodgy classic. Oh, I felt the energy flag a bit during the lengthy first act, but it builds beautifully to a fiery and alive latter half. And the final scenes between Mr. Whishaw and Ms. Okenedo are shattering. It is a flawed production, but an admirable experimentation. I wish Ms. Ronan, so fantastic on screen in last year’s lauded “Brooklyn”, was able to externalize her sexuality throughout the 975-seat Walter Kerr Theatre, but I’ll blame that on a lack of stage chops, and not an absence of craft. She’ll learn. With a fine cast that also includes stage veterans like Jim Norton and Thomas Jay Ryan, this is a reinvented standard that deserves your attention.
This show rates an 8.