Even if Ben Whishaw weren’t making his Broadway debut this season in The Crucible, he would have no trouble imagining that he is a stranger in a strange land.
It’s not just the occasional levitating teenage nymphet floating by or the unnamed beast patrolling the Walter Kerr stage. It’s the citizenry that producer Scott Rudin has assembled to mix it up with the 35-year-old Brit—a strong, savvy assortment of actors who include the likes of Thomas Jay Ryan, Jason Butler Harner and Tony winners Sophie Okonedo and Jim Norton.
A shy guy by nature, Whishaw is thus lightning-quick about abdicating his star spot. “I’m not being modest here,” he insists, “but, in reality, this is an ensemble piece. It’s very much about a community of people, and everybody’s caught in that somehow.”
Of course any feelings of isolation go right into his role—John Proctor, an honorable, just and flawed Everyman swept up into the mob hysteria of Salem’s 1692 witch-hunts.
Arthur Miller wrote the political-play/parable in the early 1950s as an allegory of McCarthyism when he was hopping mad and freshly singed around the edges by the finger-pointing House Un-American Activities Committee who were on the hunt for supposed Communists.
“What’s unusual about this play in relationship to others I’ve done,” Whishaw notes, “is that it feels as if Miller was really writing about intimate, private, personal things and how they relate to the community and the wider world—how we are all part of that big picture. He’s always got one eye on the tiny details of the Proctor marriage and the other eye on John’s position in the community and how that functions.”
Ivo van Hove, the Belgian director who staged a fiercely revitalized revival of Miller’s A View From the Bridge earlier in the season, has stirred The Crucible cauldron with some idyllic typecasting: Saoirse Ronan, who has been wrecking lives with lies since she was a bad seed in 2007’s Atonement, continues accordingly, identifying devil-worshippers for Ciarán Hinds to punish. He, of course, has no problem spotting the devil’s handiwork, having played a Mephistophelian entity himself in The Seafarer.
“Ivo can open up a play without making messages,” Whishaw points out. “He’s more interested in ambiguity, complexity, irresolvable questions. The end of the play devastates, but there’s no clear moral to take away. It’s much more of a conundrum.
“All the characters in the play live within a society that imposes a very rigid moral code on their behavior. They think in terms of angels and demons, God and sin. As Ciarán’s character says, ‘There is no road in between. You are one or the other.’
“What happens in the play—what Ivo is brilliant at doing—is unpeeling the fact [that] we are a mixture of both. We’re capable of doing good things and bad. We slide around constantly. Those things exist within—if not all of us, most of us—all the time.”