This strangely titled play sets the atmosphere and eerie mood of post Salem Witch trials, set in 1702 and recalling the year ’92 when hysteria about the pervasive power of Satan was the rage, at least in Salem, Massachusetts with its infamous trials and executions.
Playwright Liz Duffy Adams has a way of transforming ominous situations into thought provoking entertaining experiences, and she handles the premise of the Salem witch trials with care that ends up being thoughtful, mysterious, and if I dare say – startlingly funny.
Most striking in this production is the use of the set’s rectangular roof as a work space, literally.
At rise, the inn owner, Mercy Lewis, is pounding thatches on the roof with a huge club-like hammer. You can tell from her demeanor and strength in wielding that heavy thing that she knows what she’s doing and is not to be messed with. Abigail Williams enters cautiously from her trek from the port through the forest and carefully states her case—she’s trying to make sense about what happened those years ago when powerful men hung onto words of screaming girls who acted and seemed possessed.
The script has an urgent quality without feeling rushed, and logically sets up Abigail’s sense of inner torment over what she did as a scared fourteen-year old, who now senses that something else was going on—she just can’t put it all together and can’t live with the guilt. So she returns to Salem for answers.
Unlike Abigail, however, Mercy has no intention of recanting any of her story and is so strongly entrenched in her truth that she insinuates that Abigail must have been “consorting with the Devil” to even hint that their earlier statements were false. Before you know it, with a splash of theatrics by a young impressionable servant girl Rebekkah who implicates Abigail as controlling her, Abigail ends up with her hands tied behind her preparing to be judged and tried as a witch by the patrons at the bar, farmer Judah and Pastor Peck. All have described the Devil as a man in dark clothing wearing a tall hat—then who walks into the premises but a dark mysterious stranger who looks just like that. Let the witch hunt begin because everybody’s got a story and a vested interest in their own truth.
A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World
Runs in repertory
through July 28
Contemporary American Theater Festival
Frank Center Stage
260 University Drive
Shepherdstown, West Virginia
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Details and tickets
The casting works particularly well with Cassie Beck as hard as nails Mercy Lewis, Joey Collins as Reverand Peck, a sweet natured Susannah Hoffman as Abigail and Gerardo Rodriguez, who keeps us all guessing as the stranger John Fox. Becky Byers plays servant girl Rebekkah who also gets a chance to spout a story she heard in her own travels before her round of bad luck, McDeath whose characters and tales of unbridled ambitious sound oddly familiar in a twisted way. Rod Brogan portrays a brooding, heavy-handed farmer Judah who claims a prospective wife like getting a deal on prize lifestock and will brutally do what it takes to seal the deal. Collins and Brogran work together as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway in another show in the festival, which also shouldn’t be missed.
Adams based the characters, Abigail and Mercy on real historical figures cited in the trials. She also “borrowed” the title from a sermon used to persecute “witches,” where wonders were terrifying and the invisible world was full of evil and danger. If you were lucky enough to catch her Or, at Rep Stage last season, you have an idea of how she can immerse a sense of modernity in history and bring it alive.
She does that and more in A Discourse, a world premiere at the Contemporary American Theater Festival, an enticing production well worth the trip to catch.
A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World by Liz Duffy Adams . Directed by Kent Nicholson . Produced at the Contemporary American Theater Festival . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.