Left to right: Brianna Martinez, Jules Talbot, Victoria Omoregie, Haley Wong in 'John Proctor is the Villain,' directed by Margot Bordelon/T. CHARLES ERICKSON

Truth and consequences collide in the Huntington’s bewitching ‘John Proctor is the Villain’



Truth and consequences collide in the Huntington’s bewitching ‘John Proctor is the Villain’

Left to right: Brianna Martinez, Jules Talbot, Victoria Omoregie, Haley Wong in 'John Proctor is the Villain,' directed by Margot Bordelon/T. CHARLES ERICKSON

In 1953, the great Jewish American playwright Arthur Miller saw his new play, “The Crucible,” produced on Broadway. Miller wrote it as an allegory for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist and antisemitic fearmongering and the House Un-American Activities Committee, a congressional committee tasked with rooting out dangerous inhabitants.

These so-called communists were no more a threat to America’s political order than those accused of witchcraft posed to Salem’s Puritan community in 1692, when hysteria based on nothing more than innuendo and hearsay led to the conviction and execution of 19 people.

“The Crucible” remains a mainstay of most high school curricula, including in an 11th-grade honors English literature class in 2018 rural Georgia, the time and place of “John Proctor is the Villain.” Kimberly Belflower’s razor-sharp and timely play is now on stage at the Huntington Calderwood Pavilion/Boston Center for the Arts.

The opening scene finds Carter Smith, the laid back I-could-be-your-buddy teacher, standing in front of a group of bored 16-year-olds. “Sex,” he says, to which they respond in robotic call and response, reciting the administration’s sanctioned definition.

All junior English classes are charged with including 10 minutes of sex ed class for six weeks. This community clearly exerts cultural and political power over what the next generation is supposed to think (and when they’re supposed to learn it) about matters that are both personal and societal.

We get glimpses into the seven students’ and their teacher’s personalities and the strictures of their one-stoplight town through the intimate banter that interrupts these sex ed drills.

Beth, eager and smart, complains about squandering academic time. Nell, a new transplant from Atlanta, says she had sex ed in fifth grade. Ivy is all business and practicality (“Doesn’t it make sense for sex ed to actually come like before people know about sex?”). Raelynn is a cheerleader type, scowling one minute and vamping the next. Lee is the quintessential poster boy for teenage testosterone and Mason, the class clown and slacker.

Carter is the teacher we all wanted to have in high school – a little goofy, learned, and universally appealing. He basks in his students’ trust and adoration.

He also has a laundry list of issues, many of which are later aired. Caught in the netherworld between being a teenager himself and entering the adult world of his students’ parents, he evokes both our affection and suspicion.

He is traditional, however, when it comes to teaching “The Crucible,” the basis for their junior lit project and the platform that triggers a collision between age-old Southern cultural tradition and religious values and the #MeToo headlines that highlight a national reckoning with gender, power, and toxic complicity.

John Proctor, he proclaims, is the hero of the play because he speaks the truth.

Proctor, as a reminder, is the 35-year-old married man who seduces Abigail, a teenage girl he employs. Abigail, shamed and disgraced, is thrown out of the house. Proctor lies about the affair right up to the moment he is about to be hanged, confessing only because he hopes his honesty will redeem him and literally save his neck.

To Carter, Abigail is the villainess because she starts the witch rumors that eventually lead to the Salem Witch Trials. His five #MeToo generation female students don’t agree. They maintain Abigail’s “revenge” was the only way for her to achieve power in a society that marginalized and demonized her.

Adding to this caldron of budding feminism, these five are stirring in their desire to start a feminist club to “spread awareness, foster dialogue, and ignite.” When Carter offers to be their faculty adviser, the pieces are all in place for Belflower to conjure her dramaturgical magic.

And make no mistake – Bridging eras over 300 years to create a cogent, insightful, accessible, and – most of all – funny commentary on male power, female vulnerability, and agency is nothing short of miraculous.

To describe the plot further would deprive its audience of the pleasure its surprises, twists, and turns bring. Belflower has an uncanny ear for dialogue and has penned spectacular characters. Director Margot Bordelon squeezes every drop of theatricality out of this fast-paced play, and her cast wear their roles as if they were custom-made.

Although not flawless (the actors’ enunciation, projection, and timing frequently preclude comprehension), “John Proctor is the Villain” is what good theater is all about. Its storyline is a dynamo of pathos and laugh-out-loud humor.  Θ

In production at The Calderwood/BCA, 527 Tremont St., Boston, through March 10. For tickets, visit huntingtontheatre.org.

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