The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s 1953 classic, uses the events of the Salem Witch Trials as an allegory for the group-think and repression of the US Red Scare. This context is central to any understanding of the play. But playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, whose Abigail/1702 A Twice Told Tale is onstage at South Camden Theatre Company, seems to sidestep that.
The danger that lurks underneath Salem is not the devil but the human drive to manipulate, conform, and scapegoat. In Abigail/1702, Aguirre-Sacasa (of Sabrina and Riverdale show-running fame) seems to throw this thematic premise out the window. What if, Aguirre-Sacasa wonders, Abigail really was communing with the devil? What might the next 15 years of her life be like?
Later, in Boston
After Abigail Williams (Colleen Marker) flees Salem and the 20 souls her false accusations sent to death, she lands in Boston under a new name. Under the mentorship of Margaret Hale (Paula Gates), she learns to take care of smallpox victims, inheriting the “pox house.” She meets John Brown (Alec Hersh), a handsome young sailor seeking treatment, and a romance begins. When she finally reveals to John who she really is, the devil (Paul Mansfield) comes back to collect payment for their deal.
This confounding turn of events leads Abigail to seek out Elizabeth Proctor (Gates again). It’s the showdown we’ve been waiting for. There is a moment where the play approaches a nuanced understanding of The Crucible. When confronted by the fact that Abigail was 15 when she had her “affair” with John Proctor, Elizabeth asks: “Were you his temptress or his victim?” Rather than wrestle with this question, Abigail brushes it aside and tells Elizabeth what she wants to hear—a golden opportunity squandered.
Thematic contradictions notwithstanding, South Camden’s production of Abigail is tonally confusing and uneven. While I think Aguirre-Sacasa (maybe willfully) misunderstands Miller, it also seems that director Josh Samors’s production misunderstands Abigail. Where the production should be fantastical, it tends toward the naturalistic and understated. The strangest and most theatrical element of the production is a bizarre faceless puppet controlled by two separate members of the ensemble. Unfortunately, this device seems to be utilized in place of casting a child actor to play the role of “Tommy.” Without the fantastical tone this script requires, Abigail oscillates between a bland love story and a dreary sequel full of (perhaps misplaced) guilt.
Of the four-person ensemble, Gates is the standout. Her Margaret Hale embodies salt-of-the-earth New England and her Elizabeth Proctor bristles with contempt. Everyone else seems to be a little miscast and under-directed. Marker’s Abigail is mostly stoic, with little vulnerability piercing the surface. Hersh’s John Brown is playful and confident, but not especially well-rounded. Mansfield delivers his lines so slowly that his scenes lose all tension. That’s especially unfortunate when you’re playing the devil.
Production values are equally uneven. Robert Bingaman constructs a knockout set. Samors, who also serves as a designer, contributes effective lighting. The uncredited sound design borders on distracting, and at the show I saw, several patrons walked out complaining they had trouble hearing the actions on stage. Claudine Ayscue’s costumes create a nice sense of time and place, but are undercut by contemporary hairstyles and glasses. Sometimes, the devil is in the details.
What, When, Where
Abigail/1702 A Twice-Told Tale. By Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Directed by Josh Samors. The South Camden Theatre Company. Through February 29, 2020, at The Waterfront South Theatre, 400 Jasper St., Michael Doyle Lane, Camden, NJ. (866) 811-4111 or southcamdentheatre.org.
The Waterfront South Theatre is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Patrons with questions about accessible seating can call the box office during regular business hours.