After Sarah Ruhl's Becky Nurse of Salem, Talene Monahon's The Good John Proctor — which the theater company Bedlam is presenting in its world premiere at the Connelly Theater — is the second play this season that could be seen as a feminist response to Arthur Miller's The Crucible. While Ruhl names Miller's play right from the get-go, Monahon has decided to dive back into the historical time period and fashion a "prequel." Surprisingly, it's Monahon's play that turns out to be the more useful and provocative of the two.
Despite its title, John Proctor's name is not mentioned once in Monahon's play. Instead, The Good John Proctor is about four of the young girls who became swept up in the witch hunts. One of them is Abigail Williams (Susannah Perkins), whom Miller characterized in The Crucible as a jealous, conniving ringleader, but whom Monahon reimagines as a wannabe-mature young girl who's flattered by the loving (or so she believes) attention Proctor lavishes on her while working as the maid for his wife. Mercy Lewis (Tavi Gevinson, who was part of the cast of Ivo van Hove's 2016 Broadway revival of The Crucible) is depicted as a town-gossip type, decrying all the sin she claims to see all over Salem.
By contrast, the 18-year-old Mary Warren (Brittany K. Allen) is presented as an outsider with a mystical streak and an unfortunate tendency toward seizures. But the center of The Good John Proctor turns out to be the youngest, Betty Parris (Sharlene Cruz), who has the most pronounced dramatic arc while also acting as an audience surrogate of sorts. As the daughter of a reverend as well as Abigail's niece, she's the most innocent, the one through whom we perceive not only the encroaching hysteria, but also the challenges of coming of age as a girl in a repressive society.
It's that last point that ultimately resonates the most in Monahon's play. It takes patience to get there, though. The Good John Proctor is the kind of unabashedly anachronistic historical play that features characters greeting each other with slang like "Hey bitches" and using modern profanities in everyday speech. The first few scenes of the play indulge a bit too much in such sophomoric humor, making us wonder if such momentary frissons of faux-naughtiness will be all there is to this play.
Gradually, though, Monahon's larger focus begins to swim into view. In one scene, Betty wakes up Abigail in the middle of the night to discover blood in their bed, which leads Betty to recount a experience in which she claims to have seen Satan in a bloody mass that her mother once expelled from her vagina. The blood in their bed, of course, is period blood, and the bloody mass is a miscarried fetus — not that either girl knows it. In the puritanical environment of Salem, and by extension America, in the 1690s, young girls had neither the vocabulary nor the support system to accurately perceive, let alone talk about, matters of adult femininity. No surprise, then, that they allowed religion to fill in the blanks.
One can't help but see similarities in the Supreme Court's recent overturning of Roe v. Wade. Monahon slyly suggests that the questions about female sexuality that the Salem witch trials brought out — and that Miller could perceive only from a male perspective in The Crucible — remain unsettlingly present today.
Aside from her free use of modern vernacular, as well as a slight queering of Abigail (who here finds herself enjoying what others consider "boy work"), Monahon mostly relies on an accumulation of details about life in Salem and the inner lives of these characters to make her broader point. Her sharp ear for the way young girls talk also helps, as does director Caitlin Sullivan's sensitive, resourceful production. Isabella Byrd's lighting design and Lee Kinney's sound design in particular infuse the show with an occasionally spooky atmosphere on Cate McCrea's fairly minimalist set, with Phuong Nguyen's costumes giving the show a veneer of period authenticity.
But the four performances are the heart of The Good John Proctor: brash, if ultimately misplaced, confidence from Gevinson; a hidden desire for maturity from Perkins; outward extroversion and authority masking an inner desire to fit in from Allen; and above all, youthful, potentially destructive curiosity from Cruz. But, as Monahon playfully but intelligently shows, such notions not only didn't come from nowhere, but could threaten to rear their ugly heads again if we aren't careful.