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John Proctor is the Villain is not a complicated story. You won’t walk out of its world premiere at Studio Theatre wondering what happened. But that doesn’t mean it’s not thought provoking and provocative. It’s also a story we’re all familiar with: The Crucible, coming of age teenagers, and women accused of lying about sexual assault.
Set within the walls of a small town high school in Appalachian Georgia in 2018, Kimberly Belflower’s play uses Arthur Miller’s The Crucible as the starting point. Director Marti Lyons opens on a group of high school students forced to listen to their cool, cute English teacher define various parts of human anatomy in the name of sexual education. The awkward mundaneness of it all is enough to make anyone uncomfortably recall their sex ed class and that’s one of Belflower’s great achievements with John Proctor is the Villain. The play, and the terrific cast, manage to capture the many facets of being a teenager without feeling forced or redundant. Getting through that day’s sex ed curriculum allows the class to begin discussing The Crucible (as any decent English major should know, the aforementioned John Proctor is the hero of Miller’s 1953 play).
One girl, Beth (Miranda Rizzolo), is the know-it-all, her hand constantly flying up to answer the teacher’s questions. She’s also starting the school’s “Feminist Club,” to great concern of the new guidance counselor, Bailey (Lida Maria Benson). It’s 2018 and the #MeToo movement has taken over social media and national headlines. Powerful men such as Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Al Franken are being accused of varying degrees of sexual assault and, in the backlash of women speaking out about the many forms of misconduct they’ve endured, disbelievers and apologists are calling the movement a witch hunt. In the play’s small town, Bailey worries everyone’s too on edge to handle a club with “feminist” in its name.
But Beth’s friends are joining the club: Ivy (Resa Mishina), Raelynn (Jordan Slattery)—who recently broke up with her boyfriend after he slept with her best friend, who’s glaringly missing from school—and Nell (Deirdre Staples), the new girl from Atlanta. The cute, cool English teacher, aka Mr. Smith (Dave Register), offers to oversee the club to ease Bailey’s concerns.
Even with the talk of cheating boyfriends, the play is light, endearing, relatable—especially if you were a teen girl whose graduating class included approximately 60 people. The girls stan Taylor Swift, sometimes quoting her lyrics; Ivy and Nell gush over their cute English teacher, with Ivy going as far as noting that his sweatpants don’t leave much to the imagination. Sex is an all-encompassing mystery that is both fascinating and terrifying. There’s a lot of talk of church and the community, but the girls are also trying on new labels and words while flexing their growing awareness of the world. When Mr. Smith encourages Mason (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio) to join the club, he proclaims: “The future is female,” like those cringeworthy T-shirts. The girls respond, “well actually that’s problematic,” and offer PC corrections. Any formerly precocious teen will relate.
But two things happen to throw the friends and Feminist Club off balance: Shelby (Juliana Sass), the girl who slept with Raelynn’s boyfriend, returns to school after a long absence, and Ivy’s dad’s assistant accuses him of sexual misconduct.
Ivy is suddenly unsure of the Feminist Club, Beth seeks out Mr. Smith’s guidance, and Shelby is forced to reckon with who she is versus who she’s perceived as being. Like any good teen story, the group has to fall apart to grow.
It’s hard to single out a standout star from the schoolmates. They all play their roles with great, endearing conviction. Beth in her earnestness, Ivy the devoted daughter, Nell in her desire to fit in and challenge norms, and Raelynn and Shelby’s connection as best friends torn apart. Register, as the cute English teacher, hits all the right—or wrong—notes: Depending on how you look at it, that’ll make you ask, “is that…appropriate?” If anything, Nell, as the play’s only Black character, sometimes toes the line of saintliness—much of her strength is aimed at helping her White friends become more accepting and more radical.
Still, and despite its simplicity and familiarity, John Proctor is the Villain, is a beautifully layered story that manages to be both startlingly poignant and laugh out loud funny. It nails teens’ dueling audacity, intelligence, and naivety—and allows audience members to laugh at our younger selves. But it’s never laughing at its teen girl protagonists; instead, it serves as a reminder that, sometimes, adolescent audacity can be plenty powerful. More importantly, and in a way that can only be done by embolden teen girls, the play examines the novel question: What would happen if we believed women first?
Music plays an important role in John Proctor (Kathy Ruvuna is the sound designer). Scene changes are distinguished with dimmed lights and clips of Santigold, Grimes, the Runaways, and other artists. Swift’s music plays before the show starts, and Lorde’s 2017 hit “Green Light” is particularly impactful in the role it plays throughout the production. All together, the music does a superb job of tying the play to a certain time and place in recent pop culture and American history.
Belflower raises plenty of uncomfortable questions of sex, truth, power, and friendship, but doesn’t force an answer, likely because there isn’t an easy one for some of these questions. As a whole, we haven’t found a way to tackle the grim reality that seemingly good men do bad things. But, Belflower and Lyons suggest, one way forward is to believe women. Center their voices, their stories, and their interpretive dances. After all, those rumors, they have big teeth.
John Proctor is the Villain, written by Kimberly Belflower and directed by Marti Lyons, makes its recently extended, world premiere at Studio Theatre through June 12. studiotheatre.org. $45–$95.