NEW YORK — For God’s sake — or maybe the devil’s — don’t mess with Abigail.
The look of feral resolve in Saoirse Ronan’s eyes is so intense that an audience has not a moment’s hesitation believing in the havoc at her fingertips in director Ivo van Hove’s stunning new Broadway revival of “The Crucible.”
Her Abigail — the teenager who sparks a reign of unholy terror among the upstanding citizens of Salem, Mass., with her accusations of witchcraft — is one of the many coups in van Hove’s transfixing modern-dress production, which had its official opening Thursday night at the Walter Kerr Theatre. The portrayals across the board infuse Arthur Miller’s 1953 drama of vengeful mass hysteria with a stomach-knotting urgency that doesn’t dissipate until well after the last of the evening’s wrenching twists.
Introducing to the proceedings menacing glimpses of the supernatural forces that malicious Abigail swears she has witnessed, van Hove envelops his “Crucible” in a kind of galvanizing negative energy. A possessed girl of the town floats; the chalk-drawn images on a blackboard dance; an untethered wolf — played by a Tamaskan Dog — prowls the stage. Evil is most definitely on the loose. But of what nature? Are these visions of the pure variety that can terrorize Salem into persecuting its most righteous residents? Or, much more likely, apparitions manufactured conveniently in the minds of a malevolent faction to settle all of the village’s scores?
The director, who already this season has given us a sensationally primal version of Miller’s “A View from the Bridge” and a less-than-sensational fashion-forward “Antigone” that toured to the Kennedy Center, reaffirms with “The Crucible” his credentials as one of the most intriguingly imaginative engineers of the modern stage. With the indispensable aid of a longtime creative partner, set and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld, van Hove relocates the action from Salem in the 1690s to Salem today, and more precisely, to a vast, institutional room resembling a large classroom — a gathering place for a community tearing itself apart. Original music by none other than that master of hypnotic tension, Philip Glass, fills the heavy air. The omnipresent score marks time to a marvelously ominous beat.
To populate a community under extreme duress, van Hove assembles a cast with refined antennae for the story’s tempests and tendernesses. Led by the sublime Ben Whishaw as a John Proctor on the verge of implosion, and Sophie Okonedo, in an exceptionally heart-melting turn as his compassionate wife, Elizabeth, the actors ably inhabit Miller’s clearly charted moral universe. The side of the good is represented with admirable dignity and biting humor by Jim Norton’s Giles Corey and Brenda Wehle’s Rebecca Nurse, while the troubling pieties of the hypocritical inquisitors are embodied with maddening deftness by Ciarán Hinds as deputy governor Danforth and Jason Butler Harner as the simpering local minister, Samuel Parris.
Tavi Gevinson, in the pivotal supporting role of the fickle Mary Warren, who is caught between doing what’s right and saving her own neck, delivers another of the production’s smartly calibrated performances. The scene in which eternally wavering Mary, pressured by Danforth and Ronan’s perversely persuasive Abigail, changes her testimony for a final, devastating time, not only sends the play careening to its tragic conclusion, it also sets up one of the most breathtaking visual effects by Versweyveld and video designer Tal Yarden.
“The Crucible,” of course, is an allegory, the story of the red-baiting McCarthy era as viewed through the prism of the Salem witch trials. By repurposing it as contemporary, van Hove allows the play to evoke other themes. Miller’s language, for instance, still rings with the vernacular of Colonial America, and as a result, the characters sound as if they’re the keepers of old ways — the members, perhaps, of some isolated sect. An idea takes hold more powerfully on this occasion of the nefarious uses for religion as a tool of control, a notion with exquisite relevance for right now. Hinds’s Danforth is a masterly evocation of the political dangers of extremist convictions becoming accepted as mainstream truth.
Of all the interesting shapes van Hove dreams up for this “Crucible,” the most potent is an emotional one, the triangular battle of wills enacted by Whishaw, Ronan and Okonedo. It’s another of Ronan’s looks — a smile of sexual conquest at the sight of Whishaw’s John — that foretells the frightening toll Abigail will exact. Temperamentally, the portrayal is on another planet from the lovely Irish immigrant, Eilis, she earned an Oscar nomination for playing in “Brooklyn.” And yet the ironclad backbone on view in her Broadway debut seems very much of a piece with that film performance.
Whishaw, also marking his first Broadway appearance, gives as compelling an account as you’re likely to encounter of John’s weaknesses, as well as his decency. And Okonedo brings to Elizabeth something far more interesting than integrity; this is a woman whose suffering is of robustly human rather than reverently saintly variety.
So if your impression of “The Crucible” has long been yoked to that dreary homework assignment about literary devices you were given back in 11th grade, put those memories of a chore aside. Van Hove’s fully-realized version puts ecstatic new flesh on the estimable bones of one of Miller’s greatest plays.
The Crucible, by Arthur Miller. Directed by Ivo van Hove. Music, Philip Glass; set and lighting, Jan Versweyveld; costumes, Wojciech Dziedzic; video, Tal Yarden; sound, Tom Gibbons; movement, Steven Hoggett. With Elizabeth Teeter, Jenny Jules, Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut, Tina Benko, Thomas Jay Ryan, Erin Wilhelmi, Teagle Bougere, Ray Anthony Thomas. About 2 hours, 50 minutes. Tickets, $42-$250. At Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St., Manhattan. Visit ticketmaster.com or call 877-250-2929.