Cleverly constructed and vividly rendered in its Studio Theatre world premiere production, Kimberly Belflower’s John Proctor Is the Villain (★★★★☆) grabs hold early, building through pungent twists towards a fierce, freeing climax.
Riffing on a feminist reading of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Belflower’s high school-set crucible, like Miller’s play, operates adroitly as both think-piece and thrilling drama. As Miller used the Salem witch trials to obliquely portray the witch hunt of the McCarthy-led Red Scare, Belflower remixes The Crucible‘s plot to produce an incisive allegorical take on another age of paranoia, fear, and accusations: the #MeToo era.
The play is set in the bygone days of 2018, and it’s through that cultural lens that the kids in Mr. Smith’s high school English class interpret the exploits and affairs of Miller’s characters. Belflower orients us swiftly in class via a snappily written opening scene introducing Clark Kent-handsome Mr. Smith (Dave Register), his diverse half-dozen students, and enough backstory to intuit where rifts or alliances might develop.
Director Marti Lyons springboards from that engaging start into a well-orchestrated succession of usually brief, occasionally jaw-dropping group scenes and emotional tête-à-têtes. Class discussions of sex ed and those accused witches in Salem add fuel to already-brewing teenage relationship drama that explodes in everyone’s faces after the kids’ small Georgia town is hit by its own #MeToo scandal.
The action — with the exception of one scene — stays in Smith’s classroom, but never feels stuck there. Luciana Stecconi’s scenic design casts a perfect illusion of public school classroom realness, and the lighting, atmosphere, and, crucially, the arrangement of desks, vary in astute accordance to whatever moment is at hand.
The performances live up to the moment, too, particularly those of the actors portraying these engaging, credibly written teens. Juliana Sass is nothing short of amazing in her turn as Shelby, the seventh student we meet in Mr. Smith’s class, and a troubled girl whose sordid reputation, deserved or not, precedes her.
Rumors about Shelby ripple through school like word of witch sightings in Salem, but her reality is more complicated than anyone suspects. Sass bottles up all that complication into a piercing incarnation of hidden suffering, and alarming fragility. Then, in one bracing instant, set to music, she embodies the physical release of Shelby’s pain and rage, a soul purified by the airing of truth.
As more truth comes to light about the town scandal, class discussions about heretics and hypocrites shift considerably. Each of these intelligent, opinionated kids evolve in their positions on what’s right and wrong.
That’s a dynamic test for Miranda Rizzolo as eager beaver Beth, Deidre Staples as snarky Atlanta transplant Nell, Resa Mishina as prickly Ivy, Jordan Slattery as understanding preacher’s daughter Raelynn, Ignacio Diaz-Silverio as spacy Mason, and Zachary Keller as caddish Lee. The entire class passes with flying colors.
Though at times indulgent in elaborating its theories on Miller’s play, John Proctor Is the Villain offers a perceptive look at grownup sexual politics as seen through the eyes of kids whose views of relationships are shaped more by Taylor Swift lyrics than actual experience. Their confusion is understandable, and believably awkward. The production overall rests easily in a pocket of electric discomfort and cheeky comedy, building on Belflower’s allegory within an allegory, unafraid to scream with raw emotion, dance with abandon, or take aim at false heroes.
John Proctor Is the Villain runs through June 5 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Tickets are $20 to $95. Call 202-332-3300, or visit www.StudioTheatre.org.
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