Two shows that recently opened in San Diego reference the Salem Witch Trials. Kingdom City at the La Jolla Playhouse revolves around a conservative school in Missouri’s production of Arthur Millers’ The Crucible. The Moxie Theatre starts its 10th Anniversary Season with a play focusing on a notorious woman involved with the scandal, A Discourse on The Wonders of the Invisible World.
Set in 1702, a decade after the infamous witch-hunt took place, Abigail Williams (Jo Anne Glover) seeks out her childhood friend, Mercy Lewis (Wendy Waddell). She is working in a downtrodden tavern, alongside her servant, Rebekkah (Olivia Hicks), on the northern New England coast. Abigail needs to talk to Mercy, since she feels guilt for contributing to the deaths of innocent people. After the pub is visited by the arrogant Reverend Peck (Nick Young) and his cohort, farmer Judah (Christopher Murphy), Mercy grows increasingly suspicious of Abigail and begins to believe that she is actually a witch.
Soon thereafter, Mercy and others become more paranoid and convinced that a mysterious, mixed-race, visitor, John Fox (Jorge Rodriquez), is Satan. This leads to a trial, led by Reverend Peck, where they try to convict Abigail and John as not being mortal.
Founding Artistic Director, Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, sets a clusterphobic tone in Act I. While events start out relatively small, the tension builds as the audience tries to figure out if Abigail’s life will be ruined. Contributing to the atmosphere is Robin Sanford Roberts’ woodsy rural scenery, chilling music from sound designer Emily Jankowski and Christopher Renda’s dank lighting.
The tale expands in Act II when the action takes place outdoors. Watching the scenery change is a visual standout of the evening.
The Moxie has presented several shows in the past written by Liz Duffy Adams including Or; and Dog Act. The Moxie’s relationship with Adams is so strong that the playwright was on Skype watching the production on opening night.
Viewers should be aware that Adams’s unexpectedly humorous script is not a sequel to The Crucible, even though Mercy and Abigail are characters in Arthur Miller’s classic drama. There is even a joke about how Abigail never had an affair with innocent victim John Proctor, which played a major part in Miller’s parable.
Instead, Adams has created a fictional scenario that examines what could happen if Abigail attempted to find out if the witch trials were a sham. The writer eventually answers the question in a way that is both intelligent and inevitable.
Adams does deal with a theme that was also explored in The Crucible. That is the idea that people believe in lies, because they feel that false information can bring order and justice to the universe. Yet, these fabrications lead to grim consequences.
Glover makes Abigail more sympathetic than she has any right to be, which is meant as a compliment. She has such a natural presence that she becomes one of the more likeable characters in the whole piece.
Rodriguez uses the unpredictable qualities of John to his advantage. With his sarcastic quips and relaxed demeanor, Rodriguez gives a magnetic performance.
Wearing an deliberately unflattering costume from Jennifer Brawn Gittings, Wendy portrays Mercy as an endlessly selfish and narcissistic woman. She becomes more and more despicable towards the climax.
Young actress Hicks has some electrifying moments as Rebekkah, especially in an extended monologue that references an essential William Shakespeare tragedy. Hicks sadly displays the unfair lifestyle that is forced upon Rebekkah. [php snippet=2]
Adams’ plot does have some issues. Early on, the town members who visit the tavern keep a secret from Abigail. The information they are hiding, turns out to be foreseeable, and feels like an excuse to create a mysterious setting.
Sometimes, Adams’ dialogue can repeat certain concepts a few times too many. This does become less of an issue as the scope of the narrative widens.
Despite these relatively minor flaws, Adams has taken a fresh concept that might lead to interesting exchanges after the conclusion. By featuring intelligent discussions on tough issues, she has crafted an offbeat play with plenty to say about a tragic period of history. Her ability to incorporate provocative material into a captivating mystery results in an enticing experience.
[box] Performs Sundays at 2, Thursdays at 7, Fridays at 8, and Saturday at 8. Tickets are $27 with discounts for students, military, and seniors. Running Time: about two hours with one-15 minute intermission. [/box]