Stage review: City's 'Abigail' gives history spooky twist


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The upbeat history lessons we got in school managed to slip around the more unpleasant moments in the past. In our handmade Pilgrim hats, we celebrated the meal between the honest English settlers and the native Americans who seemed thrilled with their new neighbors when, in truth, New England in the 17th century was full of misery, disease, murder and intolerance rivaling that of the Taliban.

Writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Arthur Miller got it right, though, and their works "The Scarlet Letter" and "The Crucible" remind us of the dark legacy of the nation's beginnings.

'Abigail/1702'

Where: City Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side

When: Through May 26. 7 p.m. Tuesday; 1 and 7 p.m. today; 1 p.m. May 22; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 5:30 and 9 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays.

Tickets: $35-$55. 412-431-2489. www.citytheatrecompany.org.

Would that playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa had the same sense of history in his play, "Abigail/1702," now at City Theatre. Instead, he takes the evidence found in "The Crucible" to fashion a Gothic melodrama with the attendant creepy music, gloomy settings and a villain who acts a lot like the conventional picture of the devil. Oh, wait, he is the devil.

Mr. Aguirre-Sacasa's setup is the fate of Abigail Williams 10 years after "The Crucible" cast her as the jealous instigator of the Salem witch trials that ended in the execution of her lover, John Proctor, and 19 other victims of the Puritan hysteria. The most likely cause of the historical outbreak was ergot, a fungus in the bread, although Miller deftly turned the episode into a universal example of the arrogance of official persecution.

This playwright's goal is not a morality lesson but entertainment in the current mode of the supernatural, spirits and all. His Abigail, played at maximum emotional pitch by Diane Davis, is now a mature woman following the Puritan practice of good works coupled with soul-crushing shame in hopes of redemption.

Temptation arrives in the form of a handsome sailor (Zachary Spicer) who can't wait to get his shirt off in the heat of the pox (and lust). Abigail, now using the biblical alias Ruth, nurses him back to health with poultices and back rubs. But who should show up to spoil all the sweaty fun? Lucifer, naturally.

Played with the proper menace by John Feltch, he's the real source of all the troubles, not religious intolerance and moral decay, as Miller argues, making "Abigail/1702" another version of "The devil made me do it," rather than an extension of "The Crucible's" political allegory.

The play might have been fun if Mr. Aguirre-Sacasa had shown a sense of humor instead of a heavy -- and conventional -- religious conscience. Everything happens just the way we expected it from watching so many similar movies and TV shows (the playwright works on "Glee"). So there are no refreshing revelations.

"Abigail/1702" features Deirdre Madigan in two roles including Elizabeth Proctor of "The Crucible." Briefly sketched in the play, that character might have made an interesting drama, too. Kylan Bower Bjornson, 9, and Nels Bower Bjornson, 12, alternate the role of an orphan boy. The minimalist set by City's resident designer Tony Ferrieri emphasizes those deep, dark New England woods and Abigail's bare-bones surroundings without hitting us over the head with obvious symbolism.

Directed by Tracy Brigden, City's artistic director, the production never flags during its two acts, leaving audiences little time for reflection. Which is probably best.

theaterreviews

Bob Hoover is the Post-Gazette's former book editor (pittbookeditor@hotmail.com).


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