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theatre review

Tim Campbell as Chris Keller and Sarah Afful as Ann Deever in All My Sons.David Hou

The Crucible

Directed by Ivo van Hove

Starring Ben Whishaw, Sophie Okonedo and Saoirse Ronan

At the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York

Three stars

All My Sons

Directed by Martha Henry

Starring Joseph Ziegler,

Lucy Peacock, Tim Campbell and Sarah Afful

At the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ont.

Three-and-a-half stars

Incident at Vichy

Directed by Alan Dilworth

Starring Stuart Hughes,

Diego Matamoros, Kawa Ada and Peter Fernandes

At Soulpepper in Toronto

Three-and-a-half stars

Arthur Miller is looking stronger at 100 than he did at 90.

Sizzling centenary productions of the late American playwright's work onstage right now in New York, Stratford and Toronto, in which directors have reinvented his work to tackle new realities, prove that he has long-term staying power.

That didn't seem as likely 11 years ago when Miller died, a respected but not particularly well-liked artist.

Like his contemporary Tennessee Williams, Miller stood accused of having penned his great plays in the 1940s and 1950s – and then having reiterated and experimented but never again written anything significant.

But while Williams's focus on gay and female characters had become increasingly valued, Miller had begun to feel like a dated moralist, stuck in a postwar sensibility, focusing on white, heteronormative nuclear families and obsessive about the paterfamilias. When Linda Loman spoke the line "Attention must be paid" in Death of a Salesman, it became hard not to scoff; too much attention had been paid to the Willy Lomans of America since the Ronald Reagan years.

However, his artistic reputation has improved vastly – in large part because of savvy handling of his estate.

Rebecca Miller, the playwright's daughter and an artist herself, has had a hand's-on role – and been more than encouraging of experimental staging, starting with the first posthumous Broadway production of All My Sons expressionistically directed by Simon McBurney in 2008. (Miller had, apparently, before his death told McBurney that revivals of his plays were "hampered by the heavy hand of naturalism.")

While McBurney broke ground to mixed reaction, Belgian director Ivo van Hove has succeeded in truly reinvigorating Miller on Broadway in this centenary year. First, he helmed a hypnotic production of A View from the Bridge in the fall (currently up for five Tony Awards) that stripped the tragedy down to its naked truths.

Now his even more radical version of The Crucible is on the Great White Way – a desperately needed skeptical take on a deeply problematic text.

The trouble with Miller's 1953 play, set during the 17th-century Salem witch trials, has slowly become more apparent the further away we've got away from the McCarthy era that inspired its writing.

If you forget the context and just look at the play, you'll see that Miller took a deeply misogynistic episode in U.S. history that mostly victimized women and repurposed it into a parable focusing on one flawed, heroic man, John Proctor. He took a real-life preteen orphan – Abigail Williams – and transformed her into a 17-year-old character who accuses Proctor's wife of witchcraft motivated by sexual jealousy.

Re-reading The Crucible in 2016, it's not the lines about naming names that sound eerily contemporary, but these ones spoken by the play's heroes.

Proctor: "If the girl's a saint now, I think it is not easy to prove she's fraud, and the town gone so silly. She told it to me in a room alone–I have no proof for it."

Reverend Hale: "Is the accuser always holy now? Were they born this morning as clean as God's fingers? I'll tell you what's walking Salem – vengeance is walking Salem."

It's hard not to think of Bill Cosby or Jian Ghomeshi – whose defenders, who no doubt read The Crucible in high school, have not shied away from the term "witch hunt." Has Miller's play taught generations to be skeptical of the allegations of young women, even or especially in groups?

In his new Broadway production, van Hove and his designer, Jan Versweyveld, pull out the play's complexity. They set the whole thing in a classroom – which is where most audience members today will have first encountered the play – and dress the young women as schoolgirls in contemporary uniforms, revolting against their elders' teaching.

Through movement orchestrated by Steven Hoggett, van Hove provides a visual counter-narrative to the righteousness of Miller's script – creating a haunted world in which Proctor (Ben Whishaw) regularly climbs on top of girls and wraps his hands around their necks. The director has made the black magic real in the production too – with at least one girl who really can fly. Whom to believe now?

While the men debate in a corner in the courthouse scene, the girls stay centre stage and stare each other down – led by Saoirse Ronan, in a chilling performance as Abigail. However, while van Hove's production is revolutionarily ambiguous, it ultimately makes the play's flaws compelling instead of correcting them.

Mostly forgotten at the time of his death was that Miller was one of the first major American dramatists to allow "colour-blind" casting. In 1990, notably, Michael Blakemore directed After the Fall at the National Theatre in London – and cast Josette Simon, a black actress, in the role of Maggie, a character largely considered to be inspired by Miller's second wife, Marilyn Monroe.

It was a big deal at the time – leading to it being no big deal for Sophie Okonedo, in 2016, to play Elizabeth Proctor on Broadway. (She's astonishing.)

Over at the Stratford Festival, however, director Martha Henry is attempting to go further – a "colour-conscious" adaptation of All My Sons.

Set in Ohio in the year it premiered, Miller's 1946 play focuses on the well-to-do Keller family – manufacturer Joe, who stood accused of selling defective airplane parts during the war, but was acquitted; his wife, Kate, who waits for their missing-in-action son Larry to return from the war; and their son Chris. All three are played in Stratford by white actors: Joseph Ziegler, Lucy Peacock and Tim Campbell.

But Ann Deever – the daughter of Joe's imprisoned colleague, once engaged to Larry, now being courted by Chris – is played by black actress Sarah Afful, and the rest of the cast are of colour. The idea is that the Kellers live in a multiracial neighbourhood similar to Ohio's Lincoln Heights.

While the Miller estate has been very open in terms of staging, it has not allowed directors to take textual liberties; Henry's request to add in a couple of lines that directly addressed Chris and Ann's now interracial relationship was denied.

Nevertheless, this production allows an exploration of the limits of the American dream in a way Miller's plays rarely directly tackled. Why did a jury believe Joe Keller's word over that of Ann's father? Why do the Kellers' neighbours treat Joe with respect even though they believe he is a murderer? The spectre of white privilege hovers over this production.

Henry's is also a feminist production: She, like McBurney in 2008, begins the play with Kate approaching an apple tree planted in honour of Larry, arms raised and watching it get blown down by a storm; the stump sits there like a ghost for the rest of the show. Thereafter, as Kate, Peacock is the aching heart of this production – a mother unable to give up hope; her performance honest and wrenching.

As Chris, whose illusions about his father sustain him, Campbell is equally extraordinary – and he and the fine Afful share the sweetest first kiss I've ever seen on a stage. This is a spellbinding production across the board, haunted by the strains of Nina Simone singing Lilac Wine.

All My Sons was Miller's first success; the idea that he wrote his best plays early on has been the hardest rap to shake. In that respect, Alan Dilworth's terrifyingly relevant production of a little-known play at Soulpepper in Toronto may be the most significant of the centenary productions I've seen.

Written in 1964, Incident at Vichy was overshadowed by the opening of After the Fall, Miller's play inspired by his marriage to Monroe, the same year.

But what van Hove did by distilling A View From the Bridge into a single room and single act in 2016, Miller did himself with this 90-minute thriller back then. He placed 10 men in a room, all in a line on a bench, detained by the French authorities for an unclear reason.

Of course, the audience knows why the men are there – this is Vichy in 1942. But the men debate the reasons for their detainment (Peter Fernandes is excellent as the most vocal of them), or keep entirely silent depending on their strategy for survival. Some are Jewish; some are not. Here, inclusive casting is not really colour-blind either – it's a strategy to accentuate the universality of this experience and keep us guessing too.

A rumour goes around that the Nazis are shipping Jews to Poland and burning them in ovens. A French actor named Monceau (the fine Kawa Ada) sounds reasonable when he voices disbelief that the Nazis would choose murder over free labour. "You can say whatever you like, but the Germans are not illogical," he argues – and you can imagine yourself, in the same position, thinking the same thing.

How will we know when the thing we fear is actually happening? Incident at Vichy brilliantly captures the bafflement of the moment before the fall – and shows, as clearly and even more chillingly as All My Sons, how hoping for the best and believing in humanity may be a terrible strategy.

I kept hearing recent protestations about Donald Trump in these characters' mouths – people (myself included) saying they believed in Americans, that Trump wouldn't be in the Republication nomination race long, that he couldn't possibly win it after what he said about Muslims/Mexicans/women and, now that he couldn't possibly win the presidency.

"That is their power. To do the inconceivable; it paralyzes the rest of us," says Von Berg (Diego Matamoros at his best), an Austrian aristocrat rounded up (because of his accent? Because of his nose? Because this is just a routine paper check?). "They are poets, they are striving for a new nobility of the totally vulgar. … And in my opinion, win or lose this war, they have pointed the way to the future."

Dilworth's production convinced me that Vichy is the better play than The Crucible – or, at least, the better play for our times. After a year of directors surprising me with Miller, I'm eager to see which of his plays will seem so next.

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