Ivan van Hove’s topical, bleak production, Tony-nominated for Best Revival of a Play, left me breathless, exhausted and disturbed.
Due in part to Sophie Okonedo‘s heartbreaking performance.
The British actress makes her return to Broadway this year shortly after winning her first Tony Award for A Raisin in the Sun. This time, she trades in her ironing board for a poppet as she takes on Elizabeth Proctor, the housewife of protagonist John Proctor (played by Ben Whishaw), accused and convicted of witchcraft in the 1962 Salem Witch Trials.
From the moment we meet Okonedo’s Goody Proctor, there’s an immediate sense of her despair and isolation in this vast, barren space, which resembles a classroom. Or perhaps a prison.
There’s isolation from her husband, who she believes still lusts after the younger, calculating Abigail Williams (played by Saoirse Ronan) long after an affair, also the catalyst for these events. And then there’s isolation from her village, as the Proctors and their children live on the outskirts of town and will soon become social pariahs once accusations and paranoia start flying.
Even having read and known the text in high school, all I could think was, “Dear god, please don’t let anything bad happen to her. Don’t break her anymore.”
We’ve good reason to believe Elizabeth doesn’t think much of herself. She’s swimming in her fuzzy, oversized grey sweater (a costume piece designer Wojciech Dziedzic loved so much during rehearsals, he convinced Okonedo to wear it in the show). She slouches as she awkwardly fiddles with her hands, and she stands almost pigeon-toed in large, clunky black boots.
Exertion and stress and fear have taken its toll on this woman, and we know it’ll only get worse as the dark events of this story unravel.
Yet despite the one-time affair, and despite her unwavering suspicion, this is a virtuous, God-fearing woman who loves her husband, and would do anything in her power to keep him safe — all of which will aid in their downfall.
Add Okonedo’s oft terror-struck eyes, and you’re done for.
Okonedo’s brilliant, draining performance as Elizabeth earned her a Tony nomination alongside Best Leading Actress in a Play nominee Lupita Nyong’o and winner Jessica Lange.
She’s powerfully mastered the role of a woman trapped in this paranoid and judgmental town driven mad by fear— from those tender moments with Whishaw’s Proctor, where we see a glimpse of their prior happy life, to those flashes of snark and spite (“Adultery, John.”), and even hatred toward the girl who’s destroyed their lives: “Then go and tell her she’s a whore!” she screams at Proctor, “Whatever promise she may sense, break it.”
And there may be nothing more bone-chilling than the final disheveled and bloodied appearance of Okonedo downstage center, lit from below, as the cast enters to take their bows.
The Crucible plays at the Walter Kerr Theatre until July 17th.