Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, John Johnson
Ben Whishaw, Sophie Okonedo, Ciarán Hinds, Saoirse Ronan
In Arthur Miller’s
Directed by Ivo Van Hove
Bill Camp, Tavi Gevinson, Jason Butler Harner
Tina Benko, Jenny Jules, Thomas Jay Ryan, Brenda Wehle
Teagle F. Bougere, Michael Braun, Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut
Elizabeth Teeter, Ray Anthony Thomas, Erin Wilhelmi
and Jim Norton
Walter Kerr Theatre
219 West 48th Street
Scenic & Lighting Design: Jan Versweyveld
Costume Design: Wojciech Dziedzic
Sound Design: Tom Gibbons
Video Design: Tal Yarden
Movement: Steven Hoggett
Casting: Heidi Griffiths, CSA, Zoe Rotter, CSA
Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick
Production Stage Manager: Martha Donaldson
Production Manager: Aurora Productions
Company Manager: Katrina Elliott
Press Representative: Philip Rinaldi
Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
April 7, 2016
I had high expectations for Director, Ivo Van Hove, after his recent, breathtaking, beneath-the-nerves production of Miller’s A View from the Bridge, and I was not disappointed. From the moment the stage lights shown at the Walter Kerr Theatre, with the Massachusetts elementary school chalkboard so starkly showcased (evocative of my own former Massachusetts elementary school chalkboard), and the students chanting godly verses, I knew the audience would be mesmerized throughout both acts. Then, at the second act opening curtain, when a Tamaskan dog appears in that classroom as a lookalike wolf, scrounging for prey and gazing at us, the audience is gripped. This 1953 play about the Salem witch trials, that took place in the final years of the 17th century, also served symbolically as a tale about the 1950’s McCarthy trials of suspected communists. Miller was ultimately, three years after he wrote this play, brought to Congress and its Committee on Un-American Activities and accused of contempt for not revealing names of those with whom he had met at political gatherings.
Saoirse Ronan, the young Irish actress so glorious in the film, “Brooklyn”, here plays Abigail Williams, who wreaks havoc on an ensemble of teenage girls in Salem, accused of practicing witchery. Abigail has an obsession, and that’s to separate a farmer, John Proctor (here, a deeply drawn Ben Whishaw), from his beloved wife, Elizabeth (a mesmerizing Sophie Okonedo in an award-worthy role), so Abigail can have John secretly or even openly to herself, as she has already had, in the forbidden darkness of night. In service to Abigail’s obsession, she recruits the teen girls to dance in the Salem woods, along with Tituba (Jenny Jules), a slave from Barbados who belongs to Reverend Samuel Parris (Jason Butler Harner), and his daughter Betty (Elizabeth Teeter), who seems cold and lifeless, a victim of Abigail’s staged “witchery”. Reverend John Hale (Bill Camp) is summoned by Reverend Parris, as he’s a specialist in all that is satanic.
The intertwining, complicated plot thickens, with Ms. Ronan performing a most steely, surreal facedown of one of the teen girls, who sits terrified in a chair. All the girls are terrified of the predatory, ruthless Abigail. Numerous additional plot twists ensue, with Abigail trying her best to seduce John Proctor in the moment, with accusations of witchcraft having caused babies to die after birth, with tales of Tituba and the girls drinking blood, with dancing under the lure of the “devil”, with Elizabeth Proctor learning her husband again met Abigail, and with Elizabeth receiving a “poppet” doll, considered to be a veritable symbol of witchery. There are scenic images of arrests, torture, remorse, marital longing (the Proctors), forced testimonies, staged trials, and, as we know, a very unfair balance of right and wrong conclusive fates.
Mr. Van Hove, greatly assisted by Philip Glass’ tingling sound composition, keeps the puritanical cast and layers of plot complexities smoothly spellbinding. He has brought in Jan Versweyveld for scenery and lighting, which cohesively draw the eye, as smoke, dust, feathers, and flying objects storm through an open stage wall like an apocalypse. Wojciech Dziedzic’s costumes are purposefully dark and dreary. Tal Yarden does amazing video effects right on the chalkboard, and Tom Gibbons’ sound design allows Glass’ composition to fill the corners and crannies of the Walter Kerr. Steven Hoggett’s movement design gives the ensemble of girls an almost balletic choreography in their fused motion. Among the remaining, excellent cast, Ciarán Hinds, as Deputy Governor Danforth, a man with a mission, was astounding. But, it was the showcased quietude of John and Elizabeth Proctor, alone together, bereft of support, bleeding from imprisonment, clothing torn, reeking in pain, that made Ben Whishaw and Sophie Okonedo so mutually virtuosic. Kudos to Arthur Miller.