What’s with the uptick in new plays about the Salem Witch Trials? This month, the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va., premiered Liz Duffy Adams’s “A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World,” featuring two characters who appeared in Arthur Miller’s 1953 “The Crucible,” set in Salem. Earlier this year, another “Crucible” gloss — “Abigail/1702,” by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa — debuted in Cincinnati. Now Capital Fringe is hosting “The Afflicted,” The Wandering Theatre Company’s show about a modern writer struggling to understand the hysteria that wracked 1692 Salem.
Whether the trend obliquely reflects currents in the American zeitgeist — Concern with partisan rancour? Anxiety about cybersecurity? Bemusement at the popularity of Twitter? — is a subject for another article. Suffice it to say that “The Afflicted,” written and directed by Natalie Villamonte Zito, could benefit from rewrites and perhaps more rehearsals. The current version of the show poses its questions and observations in a heavy-handed fashion, and the performances are stiff and amateurish.
The production does showcase handsome lighting, designed by Christian Steckel. As you take your seat, the color-rich beams illuminate 10 or so actors onstage, in character, puttering around amidst a dreamscape of trees and chairs. Young women in bonnets and drab 17th-century dresses are doing chores — laundry, sweeping, floor-scrubbing — in the presence of two men in black Puritan garb. At the front of the stage, a contemporary women sits near a typewriter. (Zito and Caitlin Berger designed the set; Zito and Emily Relva devised the costumes.)
Subsequently, the writer (Joelle Golda) broodingly recites historical facts about the Salem witch-hunt. We also hear the Salem girls — including Mercy Lewis (Berger) and Betty Parris (Roni Laytin) — express, in improbably direct manner, their frustration with the powerlessness that is their lot. “I just want control of my future,” one says. Soon, symptoms of demonic possession — shaking, writhing, shrieks — overpower the girls, to the alarm of Tituba (Claudia Givings) and the men, Thomas Putnam and the Rev. Parris (Joshua Bubar and Christopher Morrell).
In two or three places, “The Afflicted” turns pleasantly hallucinatory: Characters don fox masks and drift across the stage as if blown by wind. The Wandering Theatre Company might consider giving such evocative indirectness greater scope in the next go-round.
Wren is a freelance writer.
by Natalie Villamonte Zito. One hour. Through July 21 at Capital Fringe Festival. Visit www.capfringe.org.