The Crucible: Re-staging a classic for the 21st century

Arguably the most prolific of Arthur Miller’s works, The Crucible has become and English class staple. I’ve both read it and seen it performed, as has a large majority of high school students across the country.

This Tony season, The Crucible is one of two Arthur Miller works produced and nominated (A View From The Bridge is the other). Both are undertaken by director Ivo Van Hove, a first time Tony nominee. The trend this awards season has seen revivals earning significantly less nominations than the original productions, but The Crucible has proved an exception to this rule. The original production only garnered 2 nominations, but this production has received 4.

With such an iconic story, how did Van Hove bring The Crucible into the 21st century? The simple answer is by keying up the metaphors and scaling down the period accuracy.

As someone who is generally skeptical of “modernized” productions, this revival of The Crucible turned the notion of watered down and palatable modernization on its head. Anyone who is familiar with the recent cinematic release of The Witch knows that the horror isn’t in the thing that jumps out at you from the shadows, it’s the thing that you can’t see at all.

Even from looking at production photos, it’s clear that Van Hove took the historical accuracy of stage and costume design in the opposite direction. The cast is clad in monochrome clothing, suggesting something between a dystopian future and the modern era. The set is much the same, the only clear difference being the wall (and “chalkboard”) used for projections.

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What I believe Van Hove aims to do in stripping down the production is to draw attention to the central conflict rather than let the audience be lost in the setting of Salem. The Crucible was built as an allegory for the McCarthyism “red scare” trials, and this production reminds us of the habit of the human mind to mold it’s own with hunts.

By giving this simple lens, I received the message that this conflict could arise anywhere, and it has. From with trials, to the red scare, to the war on terror, a human’s greatest enemy is the unknown. The determination to make an enemy where there is not one is a horror story in itself, one that is reflected in the plight of Abigail Williams and the people of Salem.

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Saoirse Ronan makes her Broadway debut as Williams here, and Ben Wishaw stars as John Proctor, the protagonist. At first glance, the softness and gentle acting of Wishaw makes for a curious choice for the strong-willed farmer, but it proves to be a strong choice. Sophie Okenedo (nominated for Best Leading Actress in a Play) stars as Elizabeth Proctor, and the difference between Okenedo’s fierce Elizabeth and Wishaw’s John sheds new light on two characters turned archetypes.

John Proctor has long been played as the steadfast man, absolute in the face on conflict, his affair with Abigail Williams the one blight on his character. I appreciate Wishaw in this role for the simple fact that he plays Proctor as more complex than that. His resolution is quiet, and in this state, we’re able to see how his slip into temptation was possible. In contrast is Elizabeth, who Okenedo allows to be strong-willed without dipping into shrill stereotypes. I find myself understanding the divide between husband and wife with this characterization, and it makes their reconciliation deeper and more believable.

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I feel that what Van Hove has managed to do with The Crucible is to breathe life into an old classic, but without all of the tradition that may have weighed it down. Arthur Miller ensured his work would be timeless simply through the power of his writing, but this production of The Crucible has taken the plot out of time to remind the audience of the limits of human rationality and the honors of conviction.


 

The Crucible is also nominated for Best Lighting Design of a Play (Jan Versweyveld) and Best Featured Actor in a Play (Bill Camp).


 

MITM Musings: If you’re familiar with The Crucible, how would you take to a non-traditional production like this one? For better or worse, the modernization of works has become a massive trend in recent years- would you rather see more of this or just stick to the way the classics were produced?

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A Deeper Look At The Special Tony Awards

Every Award season, the Tony Awards voting committee gives four “Special” Tony Awards. Often, these are the first awards to be decided, and most are granted before the actual televised ceremony.

So what are these awards, and how can someone be qualified for them?


 

Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in Theatre

The longest-running non-competitive Tony, this award was established in 1947 and has been awarded consistently into the present season.

This award is largely presented to individuals in recognition of their “body of lifetime work”, although some partners and groups have also won the award. Most recipients are still living upon receiving this award, but many are given posthumously, as was the case with Brock Pemberton in 1950 (as the co-founder of the American Theatre Wing).

2016 recipients:

Sheldon Harnick (Songwriter, librettist, composer)

Marshall W. Mason (Founding Artistic Director: Circle Repertory Company, director)

 

Past recipients:

1970: Barbara Streisand (Star Of The Decade)

1999: Arthur Miller (Lifetime Achievement)

2008: Stephen Sondheim (Lifetime Achievement in Theatre)

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Mandy Patankin accepting on behalf of Sondheim at the 62nd Tony Awards


 

Regional Theatre Tony Award

Initially given in 1948, this Tony became an established award in 1976 and is given to regional theatres that display “outstanding productions and promotion of theatrical arts.” This award is the only to include a monetary prize, which amounts to a $25,000 grant.

The established goal of this award is to promote the creation of new theatre, and no theatre has ever won the award twice. The most common theatre types to win the award are repertory theatres and Shakespeare companies.

2016 Recipient:

Paper Mill Playhouse (Millburn, New Jersey)

 

Past recipients:

1997: Berkeley Repertory Theatre

2008: Chicago Shakespeare Theater

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Winner at the 62nd Tony Awards


 

Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award

This award is named for the late president of the American Theatre Wing, Isabelle Stevenson, and is the youngest of the Special Tonys, first being awarded in 2009.

The Isabelle Stevenson Tony is given to “an individual from the theatre community who has made a substantial contribution of volunteered time and effort on behalf of one or more humanitarian, social service or charitable organizations, regardless of whether such organizations relate to the theatre.”

2016 Recipient:

Brian Stokes Mitchell (for his work with The Actors Fund)

 

Past recipients:

2013: Larry Kramer for his work as one of the founders of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.

2014: Rosie O’Donnell for her work and commitment to arts education in New York City Public Schools

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Rosie O’Donnell accepting her award at the 68th Tony Awards


 

Tony Honors for Excellence in Theatre

Created in 1990, this award  was designed to recognize “institutions, individuals, or organizations that have demonstrated extraordinary achievement in theatre” but who are not eligible to compete in any of the current competitive Tony Award categories.

2016 Recipients:

Seth Gelblum (Theatre and Entertainment Lawyer)

Joan Lader (Vocal Coach)

Sally Ann Parsons (Costume Design/Tech)

 

Past recipients:

1993: Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids

1995: National Endowment For The Arts

2013: Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence, Bailey Ryon and Milly Shapiro, the four actresses who share the lead in Matilda: the Musical (awarded jointly to all four girls)

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“The Four Matildas” after their Matilda: The Musical medley at the 67th Tony Awards

 

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