BWW Reviews: Satan from Within: A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World at Contemporary American Theater Festival
[Note: The Contemporary American Theater Festival each year produces five new American plays in Shepherdstown, WV (an hour and a half from Baltimore) Wednesdays through Sundays throughout July. This is a review of one of this year's productions. Each will be separately reviewed in this space.]
Imagine if George Bernard Shaw had taken it into his head to write a sequel to Arthur Miller's The Crucible, with an assist from Shakespeare, and you get a sense of what Liz Duffy Adams's A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World is like.
Discourse starts ten years after the Salem witch trials of which Miller's play so powerfully reminded us. Discourse is not a direct take-off from The Crucible, however, in the way that Clybourne Park, for instance, takes off from A Raisin in the Sun. Though there are two characters, Abigail Williams and Mercy Lewis, with the same names and much the same history as characters in Miller's play, they cannot be said to be exactly continuances of Miller's characters. The historical Abigail, upon whom Miller based his character, was only 12 at the time she made hysterical accusations that led to the executions of neighbors. Miller imagined her as five years older, which made it more plausible that, as Miller pictures it, a failed affair between Abigail and farmer John Proctor had been at the root of Abigail's behavior. Adams reverses Miller's ahistorical aging of the character and makes it clear there had no hanky-panky between Abigail and Proctor. Whatever the cause was, from Adams's perspective, sexual jealousy had no part in it. But what did? Adams has some theories.
Adams refashions Abigail (Susannah Hoffman) into the investigator out to answer that question. We see her a decade after the witch trials had been suppressed, traumatized by what she had done, by what she had been allowed to do, and searching for explanations.
This Abigail returns to confront her fellow-accuser, Mercy (Cassie Beck) now a widow and tavern-keeper, to ask for Mercy's sense of what had occurred, which turns out to be a perilous thing. Mercy, unlike Abigail, still believes heart and soul in the validity of the accusations she had cast, resents having become a persona non grata in Salem after the witchcraft panic receded, and regards backsliding by Abigail as proof that Abigail herself has now cast her lot with the witches. Mercy cobbles together a rump court comprised of a local reverend (Joey Collins), an oafish neighbor (Rod Brogan), and Rebekkah, a 15-year-old servant girl (Becky Byers) to try Abigail for witchcraft on the spot.
And here is where the play turns first somewhat Shakespearean and then decidedly Shavian. The Reverend, who doubles as magistrate, comes across as a bit of a Dogberry, the confused and pompous law enforcer in Much Ado About Nothing, not so much by aping Dogberry's mangled language as by a similar failing: laughably but lethally inconsequential logic. He proudly relies upon a sermon by Cotton Mather (itself called A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World and the source for the title here), which lists a series of supposed signs that the accused is a witch. All in one way or another commit the fallacy of assuming as true what is to be proved, and when the tests are applied, they naturally prove Abigail a witch. That answers part of Abigail's question as to how it happened: the Salem witch trials were enabled by legal and metaphysical doctrine that was absurd on its face.
But this part of the answer is trivial, and still leaves open the larger one: what possessed Abigail's town to embrace, not merely the inanity of Cotton's jurisprudential principles, but the judicial murder of so many innocents that those principles inspired? In other words, if the thinking was shoddy and stupid, and the results both inhumane and destructive, what allowed a community to let its guard down and act on it?
Paging Dr. Shaw! A most Shavian hero turns up, one John Fox (Gerardo Rodriguez), a man with a diabolical air, particularly (at least in the eyes of the tribunal) by virtue of mixed Native American and other non-white heritage. Suspected, tried and condemned for being the very devil with whom Abigail has putatively leagued herself, he makes incidental use of the credulity of the accusers to escape immediate danger along with AbigaiL. Shaw, who provided lavish sympathy for the devil in Man and Superman, also provided a fairly obvious model for Fox in Bluntschli, the "chocolate cream soldier" in Arms and the Man, a cynical but somewhat philosophical bounder who can speak with detached and comic mien of his own potentially mortal predicaments. That is the way Fox talks. As Fox and Abigail try to figure out how to revive an apparently blocked flight, they also discover a) how their histories have left each of them morally compromised and hence incidentally made soul-mates of them, and more importantly b) the answer to the larger question of why and how Salem happened.
This is the world premiere of the play, and it is, like all plays presented at this Festival, still a work in progress. Adams has made a wonderful start, although, to my way of thinking, some violence in Act II is discordant and unnecessary, and I hope Adams finds a way to plot around it. The Shavian surface of the second act, comedy of manners and philosophy given only a little dramatic frisson by a hint of danger, goes quickly to hell (so to speak) with the violence, and never quite returns thereafter. While the backdrop is the death of 20 falsely-accused people for which one of the characters was centrally responsible, and that is quite grave and horrifying, it is also ten years in the past by the time of the action of the play, and it is being discussed as a subject, not precisely relived. The horror should not be reanimated because to do so will (in the words of the Scottish Play) "displace the mirth," which is worth not displacing. The mood of most of the Act II dialogue is too good to disrupt that way.
The cast, like all casts at the Contemporary American Theater Festival that I have seen, is simply perfect. I was particularly charmed by Becky Byers' turn as Rebekkah, especially a monologue in which she recounts having seen a performance of "McDeath" (the "Scottish Play" adapted to the geography and ethnograpy of the New World), in a manner full of flourish and outgoingness that is deliberately at odds with her manner elsewhere (pictured above), and the Dogberry-ish delivery of Joey Collins as the Reverend, all too full of himself.
In the end, as Abigail and John discover, it is the invisible world within human characters like Rebekkah (who reprises, against Abigail, the very hysteria Abigail once deployed against others) and the Reverend (with his circular logic and his a priori approach toward what is unseen and unseeable), that contains the real menaces. We have met the enemy, as Pogo said, and he is us. Satan comes from within, not without.
A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World, by Liz Duffy Adams, directed by Kent Nicholson, through July 28, at the Frank Center State, 260 University Drive, Shepherdstown, WV 25443. Tickets $30-$57, www.catf.org/boxoffice, 304-876-5443 (credit cards) or 304-876-3473. Adult themes, sexual violence.