Despite an appearance by Satan, this is not all that frightening a yarn for Halloween, but the MRT’s production is absorbing nonetheless.
Abigail/1702 by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Directed by Tlaloc Rivas. Staged by the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA, through November 6.
By Erik Nikander
In many ways, Abigail/1702 serves as a sequel to The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s renowned play about the Salem Witch Trials. While Miller told the story of John Proctor, one of the twenty people executed in Salem after being accused of witchcraft by the young Abigail Williams and her friends, Aguirre-Sacasa’s play explores Abigail’s life ten years after John Proctor’s death. In order to make up for her past indiscretions, Abigail (Rachel Napoleon) lives a godly life in a pox-house outside of Boston, where she tends to the sick. One of her patients is a young sailor named John Brown (Jon Kovach), who can’t help but wonder why such a virtuous, attractive young woman would be living like a hermit in the woods. As the two grow closer, Abigail comes to realize that the only way to eradicate the guilt that still haunts her is to confront her evil deeds head-on.
Fortunately, just as Miller found potent dramatic inspiration in the life and death of John Proctor, Aguirre-Sacasa creates a suitably conflicted heroine of his accuser. Understandably, the scant available details of Abigail’s post-Salem life forced the playwright to embellish, but his inventions make dramatic sense. His Abigail lives like a recovering drug addict, in constant fear of backsliding into old and tragic mistakes. Napoleon proves more than capable of shouldering the emotional weight of the play. Her portrayal of a neurotic, guilt-wracked Abigail is deceptively straightforward. At first, she appears so fearful and anxious that one could hardly imagine the same girl condemning twenty people to death with her words. Soon enough, though, Napoleon proves that Abigail still possesses the fierce, unshakable will she had ten years prior, but with the maturity to realize that she can use this will to bring about both good and evil ends.
Kovach’s youthful, exuberant John Brown serves as an adept foil to Abigail’s attempts to live in a more reserved, chaste way. His charming vigor makes for a convincing temptation for Abigail; if it were not for her troubled past, a romance between the two would make perfect sense. As three older female characters, Celeste Oliva is captivating, especially in her final scene with Abigail, a theatrical confrontation 63 years in the making. Young actor Trevor Dame, in his first role outside of youth theatre, pops in from time to time as a local boy whom Abigail knows well. Unfortunately, his performance was somewhat flat, at least on opening night. Mark Kincaid, who plays three older male characters, is more problematic, perhaps because the first two of his characters have little to do, and the third creates problems for the play as a whole.
In the narrative’s final scenes Kincaid plays the physical embodiment of Satan himself, who arrives on-stage to take Abigail to Hell as punishment for her sins. His Devil isn’t especially frightening, nor is it over-the-top entertaining or subtle enough to be very creepy. This supernatural comeuppance is the dramatist’s attempt to force Abigail to confront her fate — but why bring in Satan? Abigail is more than capable of dealing with her angst on her own. In fact, the production is spot-on when it deals with the psychological tensions raised by the conflict. Director Tlaloc Rivas has no trouble handling Abigail’s emotional trauma when she tells John Brown about her childhood visions of the Devil. His directorial hand is shakier when he’s tasked with incorporating the play’s more literal supernatural elements.
Merrimack Repertory Theatre does a fine job with the play’s technical elements, especially the set. Scenic designer James J. Fenton crafts Abigail’s home out of weathered floorboards and overhead arches of tree-limbs. The end result feels like it could have been plucked straight from a forest clearing in the 18th century. In addition, María-Cristana Fusté’s lighting work is as mercurial in its moods as Abigail’s spirit: stormy nights, warm autumn days, and scenes of strange rituals flicker by with aplomb. Apart from some ambient music during particularly emotional scenes, David Remedios’s sound design is naturalistic and understated, which is exactly what the drama requires.
Despite an appearance by Satan, Abigail/1702 does not make for a particularly frightening Halloween yarn, but the MRT’s absorbing production is an admirable rarity — a sequel that does right by the spirit of its inspiration, in this case one of Arthur Miller’s most enduring plays.
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.