According to playwright Amy Freed (1998 Pulitzer finalist for “Freedomland”), “Nothing conveys stupidity better than farce,” and she presents a blunt comedic view of the dangerously dense, self-righteously evil Puritan hysteria that prevailed during the Salem Witch issue in 1691. Freed’s zany perspective, exhibited in her world premiere play at South Coast Repertory, provokes a large amount of laughter. But stupidity this lethal is also viciously calculating, and the horror of events that led to 20 unjust executions is obscured by some sketchily conceived characters and performers who can’t decide whether they’re doing satire or drama.
Protagonist Cotton Mather (Robert Sella) is appropriately drawn as the enthusiastic, ineffectual son of preacher Increase Mather (Graeme Malcolm), and Sella successfully captures the goofy eagerness of a young clergyman who yearns to please his loving but dismissive dad. He also humorously demonstrates the lust lurking beneath Cotton’s benign, God-fearing demeanor.
Halfway into the play, however, Cotton must become menacingly obsessive, and Sella’s approach is too frivolous and insubstantial to underline that decisive shift. Malcolm’s Increase, white-haired and imposing, is an impressive actor with fire and brimstone authority, but an inherent dignity and stature wars with his delivery of loony lines.
As Reverend Doakes, Simon Billig is superlatively cast, virtually a one-man show as the well-meaning preacher who wants to help his “red brothers” by alerting them to the joys of knowing Jesus. Director David Emmes wisely encourages Billig to cut loose, and his flair for farce is sparklingly evident when he succumbs to the sexual advances of an Indian girl and swooningly rationalizes, “To act in the spirit of love is to act without sin.”
Billig also shines in an encounter with his character’s neurotic wife (Colette Kilroy). When she says of their Indian enemies, “They set fire to my entire family, they hacked women and children to death, they kidnapped my little brother,” he answers with effusively liberal sentiment, “I know that, but don’t we have to look at both sides?”
The script falters in scenes involving family slave Tituba (Tracey A. Leigh). Leigh has potent stage presence, but her character is too repellently obnoxious to be funny. Hal Landon Jr., portraying the Indian who brings Doakes in after the reverend is accused of being a devil, skillfully underplays a peripheral part.
Freed obviously means to emphasize the total senselessness of the Salem witch trials by slipping a noose around Doakes’ innocent neck. The circumstances precipitating this hanging are arbitrary, unclear and contrived, and Doakes’ resurrection, in which he says to Cotton, “Thou hast murdered me,” while asking Cotton to confront the bloodstained reality of his actions, feels grafted on.
Ralph Funicello’s scenic design lends stylized 17th century authenticity to the production, and David Budries’ ominously low, sustained music cues and bursts of thunder add a jolting atmosphere of uneasiness. Nephelie Andonyadis’ versatile costumes have secular and spiritual personality. But all the surrounding frills and Freed’s well-researched observations are undercut by Sella’s Cotton Mather. Mather remains too weak and bland to provide a convincing centerpiece for the terrifying tragedies he unleashed.