SHEPHERDSTOWN, W. Va., July 18, 2013 − We’ve already reviewed what, at least in our opinion, are the top three plays in this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival: “H2O,” “Modern Terrorism,” and “Scott/Hem.” While all five plays in this year’s festival are, in our opinion, well above average, our final two reviews cover a pair of plays that aren’t quite as compelling as the other three. And the first of these is Liz Duffy Adams’ “A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World.”
“Discourse” actually springs from quite an interesting premise. Much like “Fitz/Hem,” which authentically imagines a Hollywood scenario involving two famous American authors, “Discourse” goes even a bit further in imagining what might have happened if the pair of young witchfinders who set the plot of Arthur Miller’s famous play “The Crucible” into motion meet again a decade later.
Most seasoned theatergoers will remember well Miller’s “Crucible,” which re-creates in dramatic fashion the fantasies, prejudices, superstitions and greed that engulf Puritan Salem in its horrific and still infamous witch hunt. The play was based on actual characters and events from that time, including young Abigail Williams and the somewhat older Mercy Lewis. In order to spare themselves from the consequences of their own not-very-religious extracurricular activities, both girls hype up a tall tale of witchcraft, which grows to engulf innocent friends and neighbors in a gruesome carnival of hysteria, torture, and death.
Miller’s tale was made a bit more piquant, perhaps, by the fact that he cleverly deployed history as allegory at the same time, using the analogy of the Salem Witchcraft Trials to symbolize the McCarthy political witch-hunts of the 1950s. For whatever reason, playwright Adams doesn’t appear to delve into this aspect of “The Crucible” in her version of a sequel. Instead, she dwells on the more personal reflections and emotions of the two principals a decade after the fact.
In “Discourse,” we learn that an older Abigail (Susannah Hoffman), clearly troubled by her own feelings of guilt and remorse, has become a wanderer in the decade following the tragic events in Salem. As she prepares to leave New England forever, however, she feels compelled to seek out her old partner in crime, the older Mercy Lewis (Cassie Beck), to take a sounding on the event before she moves on and away in order to pick up the pieces of her life.
Unfortunately, Mercy, after some initial curiosity over Abigail’s visit, turns on her former compatriot, clearly fearful that her own guilty complicity could once again become a cause célèbre due to Abby’s attempt at explanation and desire for redemption. In other words, Mercy wants to keep a lid on the pair’s real reasons for stirring up trouble in Salem, lest they themselves be brought to trial after the fact.
Lucky for Mercy, two neighborhood ne’er-do-wells, a bogus minister (Joey Collins) and his brutish, low-IQ pal (Rod Brogan) show up in the nick of time and are quickly co-opted into a Salem instant replay featuring Abigail as the accused and Mercy’s servant girl Rebekkah (Becky Byers) as the hysterical, superstitious accuser.
When a dark, mysterious, mixed-race stranger (Gerardo Rodriguez) shows up as proceedings are about to begin—looking very much like the devil incarnate—and decides to take Abigail’s side in the sham proceedings, things become potentially interesting.
But it’s also at this point that things become tedious as well.
Having created a near-perfect replay situation, Ms. Adams, in short, isn’t quite sure what to do with it, wandering aimlessly in a thicket of words and philosophical meanderings that occasionally even make use of 2013 syntax (“Why would you even think that?”). The second act, in spite of good intentions, becomes a formless mess. And the best efforts of cast and crew can’t really rescue the play from this point.
“Discourse” isn’t a bad play. But when it gets lost, it does become a disappointment. Its premise is promising. Its characters are initially engaging. And the play’s potential for a meditation on history, both actual and literary, is really quite intriguing. But in the end, the final product doesn’t really satisfy, leaving the audience to wonder about the reason why. Nor do we really get a satisfactory reason why something like the Salem Witchcraft Trials could ever have happened to begin with.
The answer to that one could be provided either by a second-act rewrite, or even by a new play. But you won’t find the answer in this one.
Rating: * 1/2 (One and one-half stars out of four.)
For tickets, directions and information on this and other CATF plays, visit the CATF website here.
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