“Afflicted: Daughters of Salem” by Laurie Brooks, produced by Maureen Rogers and directed by Daniel Johnston is now playing at the Laurel Mill Playhouse on historic Main Street in Laurel, MD.
Many of us may be familiar with the Salem Witch Trials. Five young women accused their neighbors of witchcraft during a time when the British Courts had ruled witchcraft a crime punishable by death. As a result of the accusations, several were hanged, and others went to jail where they died or languished for many years.
The topic has been dealt with before, theatrically, in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” That play focused on the accused. This one looks at the motivations of the five girls. It is one of the most famous cases of mass hysteria and is often now used, both rightly and wrongly, to allude to a fabricated criminal investigation where public outcry is not reflective of the facts.
At first in Salem, the accused were outcasts and misfits of the community, but later even those who attended church regularly were also falsely implicated. Many of the finger-pointing was between neighbors who were not getting along. Women were more likely to be accused than men. Indeed, 14 women were executed but only five men. In Puritan culture, women were thought more likely to succumb to the devil than men.
Historians have two points of view on the hysteria at Salem. The first is that it was caused by something physiological (disease, mushrooms) and the other that it had a psychological pathology. These were Puritans who had a very rigid and suppressed culture. Anything other than providing for yourself and your family and praying was considered not just frivolous by demonic. It was also a time when people married young and often did not live very long. This play clearly takes a psychological explanation. The four girls and even the slave, Tituba (Ashanti Cooper), all had no family ties anymore. The four girls were factually much younger than the characters Brooks created. The girls on stage are played in their teens but were historically about 11 or 12. The cousin Betty (Emily Groves) who seems to be about 11 or 12 was really only 9.
In this story, most of the action takes place by a campfire at night. The four girls, Abigail Williams (Malissa Cruz Romero), Mercy Lewis (Megan Safko), Ann Putnam (Sarah Luckadoo) and Mary Warren (Julie Rogers), meet there with Tituba to conjure up spirits. Tituba is from the Caribbean and still has strong beliefs from her own upbringing. The conflict comes when Abigail’s young cousin, Betty Parris, a bit of a brat, finds out about the group and wants to be included. Abigail does not trust her, but when Betty promises to tell all to her father, Abigail’s guardian, she agrees to tell Betty some of the group’s secrets. The rest is, well, history.
The performances under Johnston’s direction will move you and leave you wondering about your own prejudices and beliefs.
Abigail is the linchpin of the group. Romero is moving as a young woman who is never included in her uncle’s family. She is treated like a servant while her cousin is favored. Romero’s Abigail is also manipulative and at times uncontrollably angry, striking out at even her friends both verbally and physically.
Safko’s Mercy is also looking for a family. Hers was killed by aboriginal natives, and her sister was kidnapped in a raid on her home. (Some feel that these raids also fed the hysteria.) She longs to marry a Quaker boy who lives in the area.
Mary is an indentured servant. She also is looking for someone to fill the void in her life. She is very timid. Rogers captures both her need to belong and her fear of reprisal, not just from the town but from God.
Even though Ann has parents, she is the only surviving child of her mother’s many childbirths. All the rest, all boys, have died. Ann’s mother treats her unkindly and never shows her affection, just disdain for being a girl and the only survivor. Luckadoo also shines as this young woman who hitches her star to Abigail. She is loyal while her friend is not.
Perhaps the most interesting character is Tituba. Cooper is outstanding as the mystic and slave. Tituba, too, has been cut off from her family. In reality, Tituba was the first executed. Whether she really held these campfire sessions with the girls and exposed them to mysticism is unknown, However, it is not that farfetched an idea to believe she would not believe in Christianity as the Puritans did. She also would be looking for companionship, even with girls so young. Her feelings of maternalism to Betty are genuine.
Grove’s Betty is, perhaps, the least likable. She is a bit of a tattletale. However, she has a very religious and strict father who often uses corporal punishment, although more with her cousin than Betty. This explains some of her behavior. Grove manages to flesh out the girl to make her both appealing and devious.
The supporting cast includes Jim Berard as the fire and brimstone minister and patriarch, Rev. Samuel Parris, sending shivers up your spine. In smaller roles, Maia Krapcho as Sarah Osbourne (one of the accused) and Lenny Dinerman as Thomas Putnam give fine performances.
Johnston never veers from this psychological interpretation of the events. Lori Bruun is the Assistant Director. The production has an eeriness (perfect for Halloween season), but he never lets you think that the demons are real. He points the finger at society. (The performers symbolically point to accusingly at the audience.) The scariest part of the play is that even today we easily take the word of others and often find it easy to blame those who do not fit into our social norms. Johnston does not shy from this point of view. It keeps the play very relevant in this era of finger-pointing. I don’t know if the audience participation at the end is the director’s idea or in the script, but it is chilling.
The Set and Scenic Design by Ann Hull is a big factor in the underlying suspense of the production. The background is painted with white trees among a greenwood. “Real” trees are scattered around to create a natural feeling to the set. Large gray boulders surround the campfire in the center of the stage. The campfire is lit from inside. There are smoke and fog. It is a very creative set.
Jen Sizer is Lighting Designer. Again, the lights help keep the mood. Sizer also does well lighting the off-stage areas used in a few scenes. The lights also let us know when they are in the Parris home even though the set does not change.
Resident Costume Designer, Marge McGugan magically creates the austere black and white clothing of the Puritans. The black and white costumes and the black and white trees tell their own story.
The Sound Design is credited to Cooper and Johnston. Again, the sound enhances the spooky feeling of the woods and the events.
There are fight scenes in the show, and they also seem very realistic. Luckadoo did a great job as the Movement/Violence Coach.
This is a perfect play to go see as All Hallows’ Eve approaches. It is also a play that makes us think about how accusations, even from unreliable sources, can become real and devastate society for decades to come. The performances under Johnston’s direction will move you and leave you wondering about your own prejudices and beliefs.
Running Time: One hour. No Intermission.
“Afflicted: Daughters of Salem” will be running until November 10, 2019, at Laurel Mill Playhouse-508 Main Street, in Laurel, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 617-9906, or purchase them online.
Note: The subject matter may be too frightening for very young children.
Note: Susan Brall has a theatrical connection with members of the crew and cast. It has not affected her review.