MRT’s ‘Abigail/1702’: Ten years after The Trials

Jon Kovach and Rachel Napoleonin MRT's "Abigail/1702." Photo by Meaghan Moore.

Jon Kovach and Rachel Napoleon in MRT’s “Abigail/1702.” Photo by Meaghan Moore.

LOWELL – It was a no-brainer for Merrimack Repertory Theatre Artistic Director Sean Daniels to program Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s “Abigail/1702” for the weeks just preceding and following Halloween.

Daniels had worked with the playwright before, and his piece that takes place in the Salem/Boston area just a decade after the infamous Salem Witch Trials gives it both local appeal and a tie-in with the season.

The good news is that “Abigail/1702” is a well-constructed, well-executed horror thriller that serves as a proper sequel to the events in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.”

While Miller’s play – which later became a 1996 movie that was filmed at several North Shore sites – focused on the fate of John Proctor, one of the victims, the central character in this piece is one of the accusers who helped send 20 people to their deaths.

Mark Kincaid and Rachel Napoleon in "Abigail/1702." Photo by Meaghan Moore

Mark Kincaid and Rachel Napoleon in “Abigail/1702.” Photo by Meaghan Moore

In 1692, 11-year-old Abigail Williams was one of the first two accusers whose words ultimately saw 20 lives lost. Here,  as penance, she has taken up residence at a pox house outside of Boston.

Rachel Napoleon is Abigail, now a grown woman who is straightforward and upright, doing unlimited penance for sins that may never be forgiven. Under an assumed name, she first left Salem to work with a woman named Margaret Hale (Celeste Oliva).

Oliva is at home in a wide variety of roles, here as the woman (Hale) who teaches Abigail to care for the poor and sick and ultimately bequeaths Abigail her home. She resurfaces later as a remarried Elizabeth Proctor, whom Abigail seeks out with hopes of finding redemption.

Abigail is visited by a handsome sailor badly in need of care named John Brown (Jon Kovach).

He is suffering from smallpox — you’ll squirm along with the rest of us as she applies the leeches that will help make him “well” – and his tale of woe and how he came to the home infected with smallpox are captivating and interesting

With the backdrop of a fine broth of a lad being cared for by an attractive young woman – “The Beguiled,” anyone? – it is only a matter of time before the patient and his nurse become ever closer, even as Abigail sternly rebukes the sailor, telling him she is chaste and unworthy of any attention from a male.

But there are secrets aplenty to be revealed, including Abigail’s back story about events that took place in an earlier Indian raid that left Abigail an orphan, and visions of The Devil himself she had as a a young woman.

Yes, there are thrills and chills to be had and this being New England at the time of the Puritans, the devil himself is very much a part of the proceedings.

Trevor Dame plays a young boy whom Abigail is friendly with – he’ll become a larger piece of the plot at a later time – and while Dame seemed tentative and tight at a recent performance as part of his mainstage debut, he will undoubtedly relax as he gets use to several hundred people watching him perform each evening.

Mark Kincaid provides solid support in several roles, as a judge and the devil incarnate, who comes to collect on several debts that Abigail has wracked up along the way. Apparently, he was around New England long before he confronted Daniel Webster in Stephen Vincent Benet’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” which featured the famed unrepentant judge John Hathorne from the Salem Witch Trials.

Tlaloc Rivas’ direction is en pointe, mightily aided by the superb work by the production team assembled to set the proper tone to wring every possible scare, chill and bump in the night out of the piece.

Scenic designer James J. Fenton assembled floorboards and tree limbs to move the action both inside or outside of the secluded home; Anne Kennedy’s costumes are period Puritan perfect, while lighting designer Maria-Cristina Fuste creates subtle changes in the seasons or, when required, the shadows of a menacing situation.

In addition to providing appropriate incidental music, David Remedios’ sound design runs the gamut, from the quiet and solitude of a home in the forest to the tension of a frenzied confrontation with the devil.

The fright and horror that is conjured up in “Abigail 1702” is more of a psychological than a jump-out-of-your skin type; the secrets that eventually come pouring forth provide the requisite jolts you are looking for, especially with a woman confronting her guilt at the loss of 20 souls and hoping for the chance – just the chance – of beating the devil and finding a measure of forgiveness.

The playwright’s imagination and the work of the director and designers brings the horrors of a scandalous time in this area’s history to vivid life.

Abigail/1702 by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Directed by Tlaloc Rivas. Staged by the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA, through November 6. mrt.org.

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