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A star of the Broadway revival explains where the persecution begins
The actor Jason Butler Harner naturally had preconceptions about The Crucible. After all, Arthur Miller's play about the Salem Witch Trials -- which is back on Broadway at the Walter Kerr -- is one of the mostly widely produced, taught, and referenced dramas in the United States.
Now, however, the director Ivo van Hove has applied his famously radical eye to the text, just as he did with Miller's A View from the Bridge earlier this season. Among other gestures, he has created physical events to reflect the characters' mounting hysteria, so that when, say, innocent women are persecuted as witches, a hurricane might blow through the room.
But van Hove brings more than spectacle. Harner, who also appeared in the director's 2004 production of Hedda Gabler at New York Theatre Workshop, recently spoke to TDF Stages about the revival's complex take on the material. This is particularly apparent in Harner's performance as Samuel Parris, the ineffectual reverend who stumbles across a group of teenage girls (including his niece) performing a ritual in the woods. As he tries to learn what happened, he begins scapegoating the town's supposed witches not only for what he saw in the forest, but also for all the embarrassments that have plagued his ministry. And as Harner explains, this journey to persecution has more nuance than you might expect.
TDF Stages: So how did your work on this production change your understanding of the play?
Jason Butler Harner: Before this, to be honest, The Crucible was not my favorite Miller. Before this production, I was filled with memories of high school productions of boys and girls screaming, running around in bonnets and stuff like that. I projected misogyny and all sorts of other things onto it that were not that interesting to me. The thing that I love that Ivo has done -- and we've discovered it together -- is really explore the way these people attempt to communicate but then fail miserably and very quickly. What I love about the play are the moments you think they're going to see truth and reason but then don't.
TDF: Yes! It makes their actions feel much more personal when we understand that they almost grasp how heinous they are.
JBH: It is personal. I respond to injustice in a way where it infuriates me, and I really hope the production does that for people. I remember when I went to see that movie Ragtime, and they've promised [Coalhouse] that they're not going to shoot him at the end, but then they shoot him anyway. I was so upset. I remember yelling in the parking lot. The nuance of that sort of injustice is really important to me, and I think Ivo has hit that in a really specific way.
TDF: How so?
JBH: He does a thing with tempo and tenor where you will hear lines in the play that you've never heard before. Like, I don't know if you've happened to look at the play recently, but there are many unlikeable things about Samuel Parris, and the stage directions are much more full of hysteria and vitriol. When the play begins [when Parris is trying to make his catatonic niece explain what she was doing in the woods], that's usually that's just a rant at her, but in our production there's a person in pain and fear. He's trying to get some information from his completely numbed-out niece, and he's frustrated. Usually, that's done where he's harassing her, so you're immediately on her side. But here, it's more, "Wait, what is happening?"
TDF: I noticed that, because I wasn't expecting Parris to seem so worried about her as a person. I'm used to the specter of witchcraft being this big threat from the opening moments. But here it felt like the mob came together much more slowly across the entire first half. It was like everybody was slowly waking up to the idea that they had this group of people they could blame for literally everything in their lives that made them upset.
JBH: That's in Act I, in this section which we call 'the grudge section.' It's intentionally slowed down, with all this air in it. Rebecca Nurse comes in and she calms us down, and then we all sit down for an attempt to be civil. But then one person's little comment irks the Putnams. And then Tina Benko [who plays Ann Putnam] lobs a little bomb. And people can't let it go. So boom-boom-boom-boom, people catapult off each other. In the rehearsal room, it was even slower, and the seeds of that are still in our bodies.
TDF: That's scarier than everyone just marching in with their pitchforks in the air.
JBH: Ivo would be the first to say that we're in a state of crisis at the beginning of the play, but that crisis comes from attempting to find reason in what's happening. For instance, at the beginning, [Parris] is trying to be calm and figure out what he saw.
TDF: Speaking of: I was fascinated by Jenny Jules' performance as Tituba, a slave from Barbados who only blames the devil after she realizes she's going to get punished for encouraging the girls to dance in the woods. I felt like I saw her thinking, "Nope! You're not putting this on me!"
JBH: You could absolutely argue that Tituba's going to walk in the door with fear and anxiety, but in Ivo's mind, "Why? She's a functioning member of this household. She's done nothing wrong." And I think part of what Jenny does so brilliantly is that quick progression. She knows that she still has power for a little bit, until she doesn't, and then she has to save herself. Which becomes the ripple effect that everybody follows, basically.
TDF: Do you see Parris taking the same path?
JBH: Oh yeah. I read all these essays Miller wrote about the play, and one of the things he said that I love is, "I can only think that a man in a rushing river will grasp at any floating thing passing by." He talked about the cyclical nature of the arguments, and now that we've been doing the play for about a month, you really see it and hear it. The many different ways that characters not only say the exact same things, but also get pushed to a point where they are saving themselves until a white lie becomes a big, damaging lie.
Note: This conversation had been condensed and edited.
Photos by Jan Versweyveld. Top photo: Jason Butler Harner (in the background) watches Ben Whishaw and Tavi Gevinson.