Review: The Huntington's JOHN PROCTOR IS THE VILLAIN Takes Fresh Look at Classic Play

The production runs through March 10 at the Calderwood Pavilion.

By: Mar. 09, 2024
Review: The Huntington's JOHN PROCTOR IS THE VILLAIN Takes Fresh Look at Classic Play
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In “John Proctor Is the Villain” – being given a you-don’t-want-to-miss-a-minute production by the Huntington, under the inspired direction of Margot Bordelon, at the Calderwood Pavilion through March 10 – playwright Kimberly Belflower turns the tables on no less than Arthur Miller to rebut the now questionable precepts found in his 1953 play “The Crucible.”

That drama about the Salem witch trials (1692–93) was written by Miller as an allegory on McCarthyism, a period in the 1950s when U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy led efforts to blacklist and persecute left-wing individuals for allegedly being communists and aiding Soviet espionage in the United States. Since it was first produced more than 70 years ago, “The Crucible” has become a mainstay of high-school and college American Literature classes.

Indeed, in Belflower’s layered and richly contemporary play, “The Crucible” is a reading assignment and point of discussion for a class of high-energy high-schoolers in the Appalachian mountains of Georgia, where the students are preoccupied by young love, sex education, and a whiff of scandal that permeates the air.

As the production’s program notes point out, Belflower was fresh out of grad school when she found herself reading Stacy Schiff’s “The Witches,” a historical look at the Salem witch trials. Weeks later, news broke of the sexual harassment and abuse allegations against movie maker and Hollywood power broker Harvey Weinstein.

In a recent interview, Belflower recalled that as more women came forward to publicly detail their trauma, and more prominent men faced questions about decades of toxic workplaces where women were often mistreated, critics sprang up to decry the movement as “a witch hunt.” The invoking of that incendiary term led Belflower to reread “The Crucible” for the first time since high school.

Belflower describes herself as shocked by how differently the play’s gender and power depictions affected her as an adult. “I was taught, and almost every single person I know is taught, that John Proctor is a beacon of goodness and the girls are hysterical. And rereading it, I found myself saying out loud, ‘John Proctor is the villain.’”

Proctor’s villainy involves his adulterous and sexual relationship with his young house servant, Abigail Williams, whom he would subsequently excoriate as a “whore.”

Set in 2018, when the #MeToo movement was front-page news, the story focuses on four female high-school juniors already familiar with gender inequity and ready to face it, united in genuine friendship. Fueled by a mix of rage and hope, the girls – Ivy (Brianna Martinez), Beth (Jules Talbot), Raelynn (Katherine Callaway in for Haley Wong at the performance I saw), Shelby (Isabel Van Natta), and Nell (Victoria Omoregie) – begin to realize their own agency and power and find a path to take both “The Crucible” and their own conservative community to task.

The five actors playing the very different, but very much aligned, girls are uniformly excellent in their stand-alone moments and as part of the group.

Their path won’t only be smooth, however, as we see when the girls’ guidance counselor, Bailey Gallagher (an appealingly stalwart Olivia Hebert), tells them that their plans to try and form a feminism club “will alienate the boys.”  The boys include their two classmates, the upbeat go-with-the-flow Mason Adams (Maanav Aryan Goyal) and the brooding Lee Turner (Benjamin Izaak), whose longtime girlfriend, Raelynn, broke up with him when he cheated on her with Shelby, who returns to school after a mysterious absence.

When first introduced, teacher Carter Smith (a versatile Japhet Balaban) – replete with youthful good looks and charm – is eliciting covert giggles and even some illicit interest from the girls. When he tries to teach them that John Proctor is a hero, however, it soon becomes evident that he’s not a worthy role model for the girls or the boys.

It’s the sometimes funny, but always sincere, girls who are the aspirational ones in this story that, despite everything going on in the world today, can’t help but leave you feeling optimistic about the future.

Photo caption: Left to right are Brianna Martinez, Jules Talbot, Victoria Omoregie, and Haley Wong in the Huntington production of “John Proctor Is the Villain.” Photo by T. Charles Erickson.




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