If you are familiar with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible–which you probably are, if you went to high school in the USA–you may spend the first portion of The Good John Proctor, the second show in Bedlam’s spring season of new plays, expecting the imminent arrival of Miller’s titular hero. And how you feel about The Crucible may determine whether you will be disappointed or relieved when I tell you (spoiler alert) that John Proctor will not appear. His shadow hangs heavily over Talene Monahon’s play, but the man himself is pointedly absent––and his “goodness,” of which Miller makes much, will hardly look the same once you’ve seen Monahon’s take.
Like Sarah Ruhl’s recent Becky Nurse of Salem, The Good John Proctor critically engages not just with the Salem Witch Trials as an event in American history, but with Arthur Miller’s lens on that history, and with the extent to which what we think we know about the historical event is in fact refracted through Miller, even as Miller was using the trials to reflect on the McCarthy hearings of his own era. As Ruhl’s Becky Nurse says, “The Crucible is the story of one virtuous man but in real life, Salem is the story of fourteen dead women.” Ruhl is interested in those accused of witchcraft, but Monahon focuses on the accusers: hers is the story of a group of girls, aged nine to eighteen, in the months before The Crucible occurs. (The play’s last scene is an analogue to the precipitating event of The Crucible, where the Reverend Parris finds his daughter and a bunch of other girls in The Woods at night.) And where Miller paints Abigail Williams as a villain and seductress, luring John Proctor away from his wife, Monahon never lets us forget that Abby is twelve years old, and preyed upon rather than predatory.
The play is strongest and richest in the way that Monahon paints the very specific details and dangers of girlhood (and womanhood) in Puritan America. Of the four children who comprise the ensemble, only one has any living parents; two were orphaned in early childhood and the fourth s recently lost her mother and never knew her father. And even Betty, with both parents alive, has a litany of lost family longer than the list of living relatives. All are often whipped for even minor infractions of the religious and social order, like saying a forbidden word or letting the goat out of his pen to join their games, even before the witch trials begin. By twelve, if not sooner, the orphans are expected to begin earning their keep as servants.
Abigail Williams (Susannah Perkins), Betty Parris (Sharlene Cruz), Mercy Lewis (Tavi Gevinson), and Mary Warren (Brittany K. Allen) were all real people, and all appear in The Crucible, but Monahon and director Caitlin Sullivan pay infinitely more attention to their ages and the textures of their lives than Miller ever did. Sullivan gives each of the performers ways of speaking and moving that illuminate the age differences among them as much as Monahon’s language does. (The program cover, which shows photos of the four cast members, all of whom are adults, at the age of their characters, is a smart piece of design that keys in to the play’s sharpest aspect.)
Betty is a young and fairly sheltered nine: granted, for a value of sheltered that includes at least two sisters dead before her own birth, a stern reverend for a father, and a chronically ill mother. (We never see any of the adults in Monahon’s Salem, but from what we hear, the women are mostly suffering in mind or body, if not both.) Cruz gives her a naive sweetness that the others have mostly outgrown, combined with a greedy hunger to keep up with the older girls; she’s still young enough to be drawn to a poppet (doll), but canny enough to pretend she knows more than she does around the others.
Betty’s orphaned cousin, Abigail, is a hardier and harder eleven going on twelve. Betty and Abigail share a bed; where Betty wants to snuggle after she’s been whipped, Abigail wants to play a game where she’s the king and Betty a hunchbacked peasant. Abby feels herself a not-entirely-wanted welcome guest in the Parris house keenly, and isn’t entirely reluctant to make herself useful and go to work for the Proctors the moment she turns twelve. Again, we never see John Proctor, which means that Perkins has the difficult job of conveying the play’s major plot engine through their narration of events. Perkins has an understated strength that suits the pragmatic determination of the character, but it sometimes feels like they’ve clamped down too tightly on Abby’s emotions and understanding of her situation, especially in later scenes. We realize that Proctor has seduced/raped Abigail, but it’s not always easy to tell how much Abby grasps about her own situation.
Mercy, fourteen, has been a servant since she was barely more than a toddler; by adolescence she’s both jaded and a moralist, both a drinker and convinced that everyone in their community is touched by Satan. (When we later realize how very literal her metaphors are–why it is that she’s so intimately acquainted with the physical attributes of sex with the devil–it’s wrenching.) Gevinson, for me, gives the standout performance: a girl wise and cynical beyond her years, sensationalizing her fear of the devil to deflect from the secrets she’s keeping about her own experience, letting glimpses of rage peek through. She, too, has the strongest grasp on the play’s tricky tone, which–like Fall River Fishing, the companion piece in the Bedlam season–mixes period-appropriate and sharply anachronistic language.
Mary, an eighteen-year-old newcomer to town, is “an ancient child” who also makes a point of befriending the younger Betty. But in both the writing and Allen’s portrayal, there’s something just a little bit off about her. Is she just an awkward and alone adolescent who keeps breaking rules she hasn’t learned yet? Is she consciously trying to either corrupt or enlighten the other girls? I couldn’t quite figure out how she fit. At times it seems like she has some supernatural powers herself, engaging in games with Betty that foretell the future.
The play’s penultimate scene builds to a crescendo in the forbidden Woods where Mary’s knowledge seems to both put the girls at risk and save Abigail from a worse danger. Monahon follows that with two scenes of epilogue: one that further muddles Mary’s role in the play, and one that takes us into the future for Betty and Mercy, while casting Abigail’s and Mary’s fates in an even stranger light. These last two scenes leave the play world more ambiguous and stranger, but I’m not sure they add much to the whole, especially since the world has been so keenly painted from such simple elements: Cate McCrea’s set of stark wood and Phuong Nguyen’s costumes, practically bleached of color. Lee Kenney’s eerie and oddly menacing sound design. Isabella Byrd’s shadowy lighting for The Woods.
This play is the first in Bedlam’s history to be directed by someone other than artistic director Eric Tucker, and the contrast between Tucker’s style in Fall River Fishing and Sullivan’s here is instructive. Their different styles underscore the difference between two plays that on the surface are both grappling with canonical text, the history of New England, and canonical American mores in irreverent and askew ways. Where Fall River was crisp, even at times brittle, with every line consciously pitched and every performance precisely calibrated, Sullivan has a looser, more intimate touch that focuses more on the overall mood and as much on the spaces and connections between the characters as on each individual performance. She’s less concerned about pacing, which does occasionally get a little muddy, and more about the emotional weight of the actions depicted.
Which, here, is devastating. The play talks very little of the women who died at Salem, but we see by the end that the damage also cuts deep into those who lived. If one of the themes of The Crucible is how a scheming and lusty young woman can destroy a good man, Monahon and Sullivan won’t let us forget the bitter opposite: how the lust of a “good man” destroys young women as an unremarked fact, and how few tools they have to fight back.