‘Tis the season to ponder spirits and sorcery, and Trinity Repertory plays into that Halloween feel by opening its 60th season with a reimagining of the Salem witch trials.
While anyone in New England knows how young girls’ antics led to the deaths of accused witches in the 17-century village, The Good John Proctor is not a traditional telling of the story. And, while it’s billed as a prequel to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, the piece hits completely differently.
Is different bad? Not necessarily.
In the case of Talene Monahon’s play, running at Trinity in repertory with Sarah Ruhl’s Becky Nurse of Salem, it depends on whether you’re a purist or willing to get edgy with familiar stories.
High school English class introduced Miller’s take on Salem events, and that’s where purists’ hearts beat. He extensively researched the trials, digging into the lives of the four girls whose accusations triggered the hysteria. The girls in The Crucible – who are featured as the characters in The Good John Proctor – are nine-year-old Betty; her 12-year-old cousin, Abigail; Mary, a Salem newcomer whose fits would now be known as epilepsy; and Mercy, who drowns fears and loneliness in hard cider.
Monahon, however, taps her imagination to recast the story in ways that are alternatingly clever and disturbing. The dialogue in the 110-minute play, running without intermission, is heavy with vulgarity and sexual acts with the devil. Director Kimberly Senior expands on that with pantomime and emphatic delivery.
Told through the eyes of the four girls, the story follows the evolution of Abigail and Betty from innocent doll-playing to, in Abigail’s case, temptation of her employer’s husband, John Proctor. With new friend, Mary, who hides secrets of her own, the girls venture into the forbidden woods, said to be home to evil spirits, and relax in a hidden stream – which Senior cleverly portrays by tucking a trough of water beneath the stage. Later, they meet up as adults, demonstrating the deep impact of their actions in a pious, deflective Betty, a sober Mercy, and a groundless Abby.
This is a play that will either leave you enthralled at the possibilities of what could have been, or disengaged with the gratuitous language and sexuality. Will you mind or laugh if one of the Puritans comes in saying: “Hey bitches”? Monahon’s one foot in two time periods approach can be off-putting or intriguing.
Performances land somewhere in between, too. Deanna Myers is wonderfully emotive as Abigail, playing personalities from innocent to possessed with ease and often with just seconds to shift. Lori Vega’s attempt to appear childish as Mercy, however, is more screechy and cartoonish. She proves much more appealing after her character sobers up. Rebecca-Anne Whittaker perfects petulance as the left-behind and lonely Betty. Lastly, Trinity veteran Rachael Warren’s Mary is energetic, just not as memorable as her typical performances.
In all, The Good John Proctor is sadly less than memorable. In veering away from the popularized story of the witch trials, Monahon delivers something too sensationalized to adequately digest.
The show resumes to run in rep at Trinity from September 28 through November 12. For more information, go to trinityrep.com.