Sympathy for the Sinner: ABIGAIL/1702

Photo by Meghan Moore; Rachel Napoleon and Jon Kovach.

Photo by Meghan Moore; Rachel Napoleon and Jon Kovach.

Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre
Script by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Directed by Tlaloc Rivas

October 12 – November 6, 2016
50 East Merrimack Street
Lowell, MA 01852
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Review by Craig Idlebrook

(Lowell, MA) Ever notice that there aren’t many Academy Awards won for performances given in horror films? This might be because such scripts require a form of acting gymnastics – extreme emotion in some moments and the ability to deliver silly-sounding lines with a straight face in others.

Abigail/1702, now playing at Merrimack Repertory Theatre is a Halloween-y script that comes with a lot of potential pitfalls that could make lesser productions feel like you’re watching a Rotary Club put on a haunted house. This production does a solid job avoiding most, if not all, of these pitfalls, and, in doing so, it holds your gaze and makes you feel a creeping sense of dread throughout the play. While this script may not play well in, say, March, it makes for fun October theater fare.

The action takes us back to Massachusetts in the near aftermath of the witch trials. Abigail Williams (Rachel Napoleon), patient zero in the hysteria, lives under an assumed name caring for victims of smallpox outside of Boston. Since her flight from Salem, Williams has trod many roads seeking absolution, and during the course of this play, she comes to a crossroads. While she does good deeds throughout her life, she fears she has a debt to pay to the devil that she can’t outrun. (Unlike with The Crucible, that devil is more than figurative, played with a chewing-the-scenery gentility by Mark Kincaid.) She is a woman who has nearly lost hope, but the arrival of a mysterious and handsome victim of smallpox (Jon Kovach) renews a spark of optimism within her.

This fictional script provides us with deeper context into Williams’ plight than many retellings of the Salem Witch Trials. Author Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa roots her actions in past trauma, and shows her caught up in a precolonial system where her avenues for forgiveness are cut off. As this story unfolds, it is easy to feel sympathy for Williams, who has been vilified for being the instigator into the death of 20 souls in Salem.

The actors, while sometimes struggling to create believable emotional arcs*, bring the dramatics needed for such a foreboding play. Of special note is Celeste Olivia, who quietly steals every scene playing several minor roles. The action onstage does well to create the strange informality of Puritanical religion, where the devil is not all powerful, but certainly ever present, ready to trip you up (sometimes quite literally) on the narrow path to salvation. The star of this production, however, may be the intricate set. designed by James J. Fenton, which weaves weathered wooden planks and vine-like branches together to create a nook in the woods that feels both a shelter and a trap.

If you are not a fan of devilish tales of dread during this time of year, this play may not hold your attention. However, if you are looking for a mature and thoughtful fright, Abigail/1702 is your play. It may focus on the fantastical, but the real dread you feel may come from the weight of your past transgressions.

*It should be noted that the reviewer attended a preview of this play.

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