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'The Crucible': What critics say about a show keeps returning to Broadway

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(Read caption) 'The Crucible' stars Saoirse Ronan (center) and Ben Whishaw (r.).

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A new production of Arthur Miller’s classic play "The Crucible" has opened on Broadway, the sixth time the show has been performed on the Great White Way. 

"The Crucible" stars Ben Whishaw of "Spectre" as John Proctor, a man living in seventeenth-century Salem whose wife, Elizabeth (Sophie Okonedo), is accused of witchcraft by a group of girls including Abigail (Saoirse Ronan), a teenager with whom John had an affair. The show also stars Ciaran Hinds and is directed by Ivo van Hove. 

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The story was adapted as a movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder in 1996. Past Broadway stagings have starred Liam Neeson and Laura Linney. 

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Many critics are impressed with the current production, with New York Times writer Ben Brantley saying it "feels like the freshest, scariest play in town." 

Ms. Ronan is "absolutely smashing," Mr. Brantley writes. "Mr. van Hove knew exactly what he was doing here. All the members of his large ensemble find revealing new shapes within archetypes and insist that we grasp and even sympathize with their characters' perspectives."

"One of the miracles of this 'Crucible'…is its success in presenting all those onstage as all too human and all too hungry to see themselves as good people," Brantley concludes. 

And Chicago Tribune writer Chris Jones called the production “eye-popping and wholly unconventional":

In Miller's play, the hysterical girls are the antagonists, capable of bringing a seemingly rational community to its knees, the elder women vanquished, all because they are able to find a sympathetic set of authoritarian ears. With Ronan as his chief asset, and Ciaran Hinds as a relentless political prosecutor, van Hove brilliantly manipulates that counterintuitive aspect.…The flaw of this version of 'The Crucible,' to my mind, is that Whishaw's Proctor is too defeated from the beginning.

Associated Press writer Mark Kennedy called Mr. Whishaw "astounding," and his performance "a master stroke."

But the revival itself, Mr. Kennedy wrote, "is more uneven." Although the director's "stripped-down approach does starkly illuminate the paranoia and descent into madness as a small town turns on itself," Van Hove "seems to put his thumb on the side of sorcery, with a scene of a girl hovering in the air, storms crashing through windows and that blackboard brilliantly turning into a projection screen for swirling otherworldly symbols. It’s a curious step for a play written to expose the hollowness of the witch-hunting McCarthy era," Kennedy noted. 

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With this sixth revival, "Crucible" has now been restaged on Broadway more times than, for example, the classic musical "Oklahoma!" What relevance does the play, which was first staged in 1953, have today? What keeps those on Broadway coming back? 

Brantley writes that "its arrival also feels perfectly timed in this presidential election year, when politicians traffic in fears of outsiders and otherness."

Meanwhile, Mr. Jones notes that the show discusses "the perennial dangers of a rampant theocracy fueled by ignorance and mass hysteria.…This is a 'Crucible' that focuses on how really decent people can be destroyed by fear and hatemongering."