Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s world premiere play, Abigail/1702, is under way at the Cincinnati Playhouse. It’s the Mount Adams theater’s 66th premiere, and a positive sign that new artistic director Blake Robison will continue the company’s long tradition of fostering new theatrical works and emerging writers. The playwright, who also writes scripts for TV series (Big Love, Glee) and story lines for Marvel comics (Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four), is an up-and-coming theater talent, and this play reveals his more serious side.
Aguirre-Sacasa saw a production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible back in 2007 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and became intrigued with the character of Abigail Williams. (Cincinnati Playhouse most recently staged Miller’s 1953 classic in 2004.) Miller’s play is a story of the tragic Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts in 1692: Abigail, a devious teen seductress, has had an illicit affair with John Proctor. When he refuses to continue, Abigail accuses his wife Elizabeth of witchcraft, hoping to replace her through a trumped-up trial. Things go awry in court, and Abigail flees from Salem; Proctor’s wife is spared, but he is executed for witchcraft.
Fast-forward a decade. Based on Miller’s brief footnote to his play — “Legend has it that Abigail Williams later became a prostitute in Boston” — Aguirre-Sacasa’s play imagines her life in that city. Now in her late 20s, her life is hard. A social outcast, Abigail (Stephanie Fieger) has assumed a new life and inherited a “pest house” from a woman who quarantined destitute men suffering from smallpox. Abigail is afflicted with guilty nightmares about her deeds in Salem. We also hear more than we learned in The Crucible about her childhood in Maine, where her parents were murdered in an Indian attack.
John Brown (Nicholas Carriere), infected with the “pox,” finds his way to Abigail and begs her to care for him. She grudgingly does so, doubting that he is being truthful with her. (His story is more complicated.) As he recovers, they become better acquainted, and he makes lusty advances that she resists, but eventually warms to. But the story takes a supernatural turn, as her nightmares are realized. I’ll just say that the Devil she lied about dancing with in 1692 becomes a very real element of her life.
Fieger’s performance as Abigail is convincing in a role that has to carry the narrative freight of the show, as well as serving as its central character. Aguirre-Sacasa’s dialogue reflects the stilted speech of 17th-century New Englanders (much as Miller’s script did for The Crucible), but he also uses Abigail more conversationally to outline her backstory and explain elements of the action. Ross Bickell and Deanne Lorette portray an array of incidental characters from Abigail’s past, present and — perhaps — future. (Ethan Verderber, age 8, plays a small but important role.) A lot happens in 85 minutes, no intermission.
Robison demonstrates his commitment to new work by serving as the able director of Abigail/1702. In his previous position as artistic director of Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Md., Robison teamed with Aguirre-Sacasa on a stage adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray. The two seem to resonate with emotionally gripping stories that have high stakes, and Robison uses the Playhouse’s many resources to execute this production beautifully.
Wilson Chin’s scenic design creates a moody, rundown scene in the Playhouse’s Robert S. Marx mainstage. Leafless trees with tangled branches stand in front of a ruined building, assumedly the collapsing exterior of the pest house. Front and center, surrounded by a forest floor, is a platform that serves as an interior of the house, starkly furnished with a bed, a table and a chair. This provides a simple palette for Matthew Richards’s evocative lighting design, which provides eerie shadows and striking moments of emotionally colored accents that underscore dramatic and spectral scenes. Matthew M. Nielson’s sound design (he also composed effective musical underscoring for many scenes) further enhances the supernatural environment. (Chin, Richards and Nielson are all new designers Robison has brought to the Playhouse.)
Abigail/1702 is an impressive production, a piece of fine storytelling that will deeply affect audiences. Fieger’s Abigail is a chastened woman who wishes to move beyond her past, but its grip on her is firm. Carriere’s role as John is more catalyst than character, but he has his own story and their relationship feels genuine. Lorette and Bickell play pivotal roles in the play’s denouement.
I expect this play will have many more productions, and Aguirre-Sacasa’s name will become familiar on regional theater stages.
ABIGAIL/1702 , presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through Feb. 17.