There are no Pilgrim clothes or 17th century posturings in Broadway’s latest return to “The Crucible.” Ivo van Hove, the unstoppably provocative and dazzling Belgian director, clearly believes in the timelessness of Miller’s monumental 1953 parable about the Salem witch trials.
Earlier this season, van Hove tore away the Italian accents and the Brooklyn setting for his stunning stripped-down revival of Miller’s “A View from the Bridge.” In this gut-wrenching, modern-dress “Crucible” — infused with the visceral suspense and the manipulative underscoring of a horror movie — the director denies us any protective distance from the cumulative modern implications of mass hysteria and hypocrisy.
Despite the starry cast, including Saoirse Ronan, Ben Whishaw, Sophie Okonedo and Ciarán Hinds, this is a big splendid ensemble of equals. And despite the sprawling locations of Miller’s story, all the action feels unforced into one big country schoolroom (designed by van Hove’s invaluable collaborator Jan Versweyveld), where we first see the girls as students facing a huge blackboard. A black curtain, used throughout the production as a shocking interruption, descends for the first time.
Ronan — blond, unbridled and unrecognizable from the gentle brunette in her Oscar-nominated film, “Brooklyn” — plays Abigail with the duplicity of a malevolent surfer-girl. Whishaw, as good-but-flawed John Proctor, is more low-key and less heroic than was Liam Neeson in the 2002 revival. Okonedo is quietly forceful — and ultimately heartbreaking — as John’s wife, accused of witchcraft so Abigail can get her husband, and Hinds is aptly imperious as the pious, self-serving deputy-governor.
Miller, of course, wrote this as a metaphor for the state-sanctioned hunt for Communists in the ’50s. He also meant it as a cautionary tale for the separation of church and state, as well as an indictment against greed and the repression of women. Although van Hove resists even a hint of cheap contemporary resonance, the village characters in their everyday work clothes connect the dots for us.
This is not to suggest that van Hove resists a few outrageous and entertaining touches of the hyper-theatrical. The teen girls, guilty about dancing naked in the woods, are so good at pretending they’re bewitched that van Hove lets us imagine we see one flying. And for one brief awe-inspiring moment, we swear a wolf has appeared in the classroom before hurrying back to the wild. In fact, we learn later, he is played by a dog named Luchta — and, truly, he’s a star among stars.