Abigail Williams is described by Arthur Miller in “The Crucible” as a “strikingly beautiful girl” of 17 with “an endless capacity for dissembling.” Lusty and conniving, Miller’s Abigail has an affair with her former boss, John Proctor, and after she gets fired, tries to hex his wife out of jealousy by drinking blood and dancing naked with other girls in the woods. Her lies about that night serve as the catalyst for Miller’s 1953 dramatization of the Salem witch trials, which casts John as its tragic hero.
Williams was, in fact, only 11 or 12 years old in 1692, when she and her 9-year-old cousin, Betty Parris, made their first accusations. “The Good John Proctor,” a dark comedy by the playwright Talene Monahon, imagines Abigail (Susannah Perkins) and Betty (Sharlene Cruz) as girlhood BFFs and bedfellows in the year leading up to the action depicted in Miller’s play. Speaking in modern vernacular, but wearing Puritan-style bonnets and white nightdresses (in costumes by Phuong Nguyen), the girls whisper about dreams of flying, playact as a king and a peasant maiden and recoil in paranoia as if they were under constant surveillance.
There is a threat lurking in the rustling darkness that surrounds them in this Bedlam production, which runs through April 1 at the Connelly Theater, but it’s not the supernatural kind (the stunning chiaroscuro lighting is by Isabella Byrd, and arboreal sound design by Lee Kinney). Mercy (Tavi Gevinson), a seasoned housemaid of 14, calls it the devil, but what she really means is the power and whims of men. “There’s evil everywhere,” Mercy mordantly insists. Is it any wonder the girls assume Satan is to blame for the bloody parts of womanhood that no one else has explained?
The Salem witch trials have been endlessly rehashed and reclaimed in pop culture, including onstage; Bedlam presented a stripped-down and pointedly political take on “The Crucible” in this theater in 2019, and Gevinson played Mary Warren in a stylized and bombastic Broadway revival in 2016. “The Good John Proctor” isn’t even the only Salem-inspired dark comedy to play Off Broadway this season; Sarah Ruhl’s “Becky Nurse of Salem” brought a descendant of the accused to Lincoln Center in the fall.
So why take audiences to Salem again? Monahon’s playful and precise ear for the rhythms of adolescent dialogue is among the chief pleasures of “The Good John Proctor,” which draws a bit too heavily on its source material (a brief refresher on “The Crucible” and its creepy poppet would be advisable preshow reading). Beautifully staged by the director Caitlin Sullivan, the play is most engaging and provocative when at its most original — mining its characters’ messy, developing psyches, with contemporary and sometimes profane language, rather than placing them within existing narratives.
The cast, including a doe-eyed Brittany K. Allen as Mary Warren, nimbly inhabit characters on the edge of innocence, or just beyond it, who belong not entirely to the past or the present. That shadowy in between space opens up fertile ground for investigation, where the only ones who have any basis to be afraid are the girls who’ve been left in the dark.
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