Salem Lives

Saoirse Ronan and Ben Whishaw in Ivo Van Hove’s production of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible." | JAN VERSWEYVELD

Saoirse Ronan and Ben Whishaw in Ivo Van Hove’s production of Arthur Miller's “The Crucible.” | JAN VERSWEYVELD

There is no more terrifying moment to be seen on a Broadway stage in this season — nor has there been in recent memory — than Saoirse Ronan as Abigail Williams quietly and intently staring down Tavi Gevinson as Mary Warren in Ivo Van Hove’s chilling and brilliant staging of “The Crucible.” The two young women sit facing each other near the apron of the stage as the men of Salem’s witch trial court argue upstage about whether or not to hear Mary’s evidence that Abigail’s accusations are false. Abigail’s laser-like malevolence proves too much for Mary, who crumbles under the implicit threats and, to save herself from the court that believes Abigail’s accusations over any rational argument, gets back in line with Abigail and her clique of fellow teens in claiming to see spirits.

Abigail, having been rejected sexually by John Proctor and then fired by his wife Elizabeth, touches off the hysteria as a means of getting revenge. Cynically latching on to the town’s religious superstitions, Abigail foments fear, nullifies facts, and so stirs up the mob that emotion supersedes proof. The result is full-scale devastation.

Ivo Van Hove’s spellbinding, timely production of “The Crucible” casts bleak light on contemporary politics

Arthur Miller’s 1953 play was an indictment of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts that targeted suspected communists and created the Hollywood blacklist. Just as those under the cloud the Wisconsin Republican created were encouraged to name names to save their own skins, Abigail and the other girls do the same in the play. But Van Hove doesn’t leave “The Crucible” back in the Cold War, much less the 17th century. Instead, he puts the cast in modern dress and places them in a nondescript cavernous room. The echoes of Salem and McCarthyism are inescapable, but the real horror is our current political reality in which self-aggrandizing demagogues seek to control others by playing on their “sincerely held religious beliefs.” The success of this dark and magnificent interpretation comes from brilliantly exposing the self-serving evil that nourishes itself on the manipulation of the credulous.

Van Hove’s masterful interpretation of Miller’s play is fully realized in the splendid cast. In addition to Ronan, who is cold and terrifying as Abigail, and Gevinson, who is compelling as the conflicted and fragile Mary Warren, the entire company excels. In particular, Jason Butler Harner is excellent as Reverend Samuel Parris, whose religion is as much about expediency and seeking power as faith. Jim Norton is heartbreaking as Giles Corey, pleading for his life and that of his wife against raging falsehoods. Ciarán Hinds as Deputy General Danforth, starkly resolute in the intractability of his faith and righteousness, gives a performance that will give you nightmares for a week. And at the center of the play is the relationship between John Proctor, a grippingly intense and committed Ben Whishaw, and his wife Elizabeth, Sophie Okonedo, whose every moment is richly filled. The couple battle for their integrity in the face of condemnation for not confessing to that which they know is untrue.

Jan Versweyveld’s lighting complements his set beautifully, and the muted palette of the contemporary costumes by Wojciech Dziedzic stands in stark contrast to the purple passions of the play. The original score by Philip Glass, at times barely perceptible, adds to the accumulating tension as the trials progresses.

The revival of a classic play always raises the question of what new can be found. Here, “The Crucible” stands as a stark reminder of what can happen when mass hysteria and superstition trump due process and rational thought. Shocking as it seems to an enlightened mind that rejects the supernatural, we are still surrounded by latter-day Cotton Mathers who build their politics around fear and intimidation, leaving untold damage in their wakes. As this awe-inspiring production makes clear, those demagogues –– and not the prejudices and myths they play on –– are today what we should fear most.

ARTHUR MILLER’S THE CRUCIBLE | Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St. | Through Jul. 17: Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.;Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $42-$149 at or 800-745-3000 | Two hrs., 50 mins., with intermission