It’s hard to feel a lot of sympathy or forgiveness for the character Abigail Williams as she is depicted in Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible. Described in Miller’s stage directions as “a strikingly beautiful girl…with an endless capacity for dissembling,” she is the manipulative Queen Bee teen who uses sophisticated psychological warfare on her friends to get them to help her cover up her own sins and crimes by making accusations of witchcraft against innocent neighbors (leading to the execution of twenty). At the end of that play, Abigail has vanished with her uncle’s life savings, presumably out of fear of being caught out in her lies. Her uncle speculates that she’s boarded a ship; Miller tells us that “the legend has it that Abigail turned up later as a prostitute in Boston”; history leaves no record of her fate.
In his play Abigail/1702 (currently playing at City Theatre) Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa provides Abigail with a second life. Ten years after the Salem witch trials, she has repented her sins, changed her name to Ruth Meadows (played by Diane Davis), and has earned a reputation as a wise woman and healer. A sailor, John Brown (Zachary Spicer), sick with the pox, comes to her for aid. She takes him in, ministers him through the disease, and when he is recovered…well, you can guess what happens next. Both have skeletons in their closets, so they are in many ways an ideal pair. But just when she thinks she can hope for a happy future, Abigail’s skeleton comes back to claim her, in the form of the simultaneously sinister and debonair devil himself (John Feltch). She had, after all, signed her name in his book, back when she danced in the woods outside of Salem with Tituba and her friends – she belongs to him – and she has no choice but to consign herself to eternal damnation.
But can she be forgiven? Can her faith and good deeds post-Salem redeem her? The answer, in Aguirre-Sacasa’s simplified theology seems to be: yes. Aguirre-Sacasa has responded to Arthur Miller’s astute and insightful politico-psychological allegory – in which religious belief takes the place of ideological belief, and the devil and witches stand in for communism and other hysteria-inducing “evil” ideas – with a Christian morality play that in the end gets Abigail’s victims – and tries to get us, as its audience – to understand and forgive her. In the process, the play does a good job of exploring the psychology of how and why a young girl might get caught up in the web of lies and deceit that wreaked so much havoc on the town of Salem, but it’s a bit more difficult to believe that the near-sociopathic Abigail of Miller’s play – who is not only a pathological liar but also a narcissistic, self-serving manipulator who whips her friends into line to save her own skin — would ever develop the moral compass and selfless devotion to serving others that guides the actions of the Abigail of Aguirre-Sacasa’s play.
This Abigail’s past, in other words, is far more interesting than her present, and the play’s best moments come when she is grappling with that past. Davis is very good in the role, and the scene in which she recounts the “redskin” attack that left her an orphan is vivid and harrowing. Her encounter late in the play with the former Elizabeth Proctor (Deirdre Madigan, who stands out in all of the roles she plays in the production) is also electrifying, and to his credit Aguirre-Sacasa imagines a very real and human Elizabeth who has no forgiveness or mercy in her heart for the “harlot” who destroyed her family. But in the end, Aguirre-Sacasa seems less interested in how real humans act and more interested in devils who torment and saints who forgive; the play’s final image is of Abigail reborn, cleansed of her sins, bathing in the glow of redemption with her new family at her side. It’s a rather unsatisfying end to the story for those of us who might feel, with Elizabeth, that what Abigail did to the town of Salem was, in fact, unforgiveable.