The Afflicted

I didn’t really understand the greatness of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible until I learned that he wrote the play in 1953 at the time of McCarthyism, and that the House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities questioned Miller in 1956. Then the play’s themes of suspicion, fear, and other-ing, or demonizing what we cannot squelch or control, became powerful commentary.

The Afflicted, created by The Wandering Theatre Company, is two stories threaded together: a 21st century writer uncovering facts about the women who were accused and tried during the Salem witch trials and the 17th century town of Salem where mass hysteria led to accusations, trials, and executions.

Click for tickets to The Afflicted

Click for tickets to The Afflicted

The cast of 10 actors combines text and movement to present scenes of waiting, anxiety, frenzy, and the trials’ aftermath. In the program, a note about the production says that the ensemble uses the Viewpoints technique, made popular by directors like Anne Bogart, to “inspire” them about the constraints and desires of the girls. This performance benefits from the intertwining of physical and verbal ideas, which becomes a multi-layered way of displaying how the restrictions of Puritan ideology, the belief that life consists of “prayer, chores, work, and church,” trigger the show’s conflicts.

The cast is already on stage when the audience enters GALA Theatre. They are milling about quietly in a setting filled with trees, stumps of trees, lanterns, chairs, and in one corner a table with a typewriter. The 21st century writer occupies this corner and the downstage area, which is strewn with her books, paper, a whiskey bottle, and cigarettes. The rest of the cast, dressed in pilgrim bonnets and dresses for the women, black pants and shirts for the two men, presents an atmosphere of mundane abiding.The women knit, fold laundry, and scrub the floor.

The show begins when the house lights dim and we are immersed in this strangely juxtaposed world:  when the writer speaks, frustrated by the lack of information available about these women and their pursuits, the rest of the cast goes about their daily chores. The setting beautifully evokes how research involves a dual existence: analyzing a historical site and wishing to be within it at the same time.

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The Afflicted
by Natalie Villamonte Zito
90 minutes
at GALA Theatre at Tivoli Square
3333 14th Street NW
Washington, DC, 20010
Details and tickets

There’s one moment when the cast acknowledges the writer (played by Joelle Golda) and appears to stalk her as she sits at her typewriter, reaching towards her like zombies craving prey. It physically captures how characters live beyond the pages that describe their lives, and how all consuming it may be to investigate a particular time period. This researcher is limited not only by the paucity of material but also by the subjects’ wish to keep their secrets in their graves.

The writer persists, uncovering how the Puritan reverend, Samuel Parris, split the community over his insistence on a certain salary and privileges. Played by Christopher Morrell, Reverend Parris is the one who beats Tituba until she confesses to being a witch, and the trials follow.

One of the highlights of the show is a gorgeous solo by Tituba (Claudia Givings) early on in the production where, through movement, she captures the rhythmic isolations of another culture and environment. The contrast between her dancing and the stiff, controlled movements of the Puritans is evocative of deeper ideological differences. Another wonderful element of this production is the set design by Natalie Villamonte Zito (who is also the writer/director of the show) and Caitlin Berger (who plays one the afflicted girls, Mercy Lewis, and is a terrific actor). The lighting by Christian Steckel, is bold, creative, and adds to the emotional landscape of each scene.

Running a little less than an hour, the production kept me enthralled, curious to learn more about these characters and what the writer uncovers. Some acoustic problems made it difficult to hear her voice over the show’s sound-score, but these kinks are small compared to the overall impact of blending movement and dialogue to create an enriching theatrical experience.

Like The Crucible six decades ago, The Afflicted has relevance today when a trial about a killing triggered by suspicion and fear just captured national headlines. Lines of dialogue in The Afflicted ask, “What does it mean to have a strike against you?” One of the girls who accused others of being witches admits that what she did was “ignorant” and “delusional.”

The Afflicted cracks open the circumstances and motives that drove a community of people to take seemingly incomprehensible actions.

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