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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

‘John Proctor is the Villain’ takes on feminism, friendship

The must-see Huntington production tackles ‘The Crucible’ in the modern era.

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The Huntington Theatre Company cast of “John Proctor is the Villain” is pictured.

“John Proctor is the Villain,” currently running at the Huntington's Calderwood Pavilion in Boston, tells a story that feels timely and timeless all at once. Set in a one-stoplight Georgia town in 2018, Kimberly Belflower’s play tells a story for the present moment that draws inspiration from Arthur Miller’s classic drama “The Crucible” (1953). A coming-of-age story for a new generation, “John Proctor is the Villain” explores the ins and outs of friendship, power dynamics and the patriarchy in a hilarious and moving production.

“The Crucible,” a retelling of the Salem Witch Trials, doesn’t just serve as inspiration for the play’s story — it’s a crucial part of the plot. “John Proctor” is set in a high school English classroom, where passionate teacher Carter Smith (Japhet Balaban) is reading “The Crucible” with his students. He argues that John Proctor, the protagonist of “The Crucible,” is one of literature’s greatest heroes, and encourages his students to explore the themes of hysteria and justice within the story. His students adore him, especially Beth (Jules Talbot), a straight-A student who starts a feminism club, with Smith signing on as the group’s faculty advisor.

Talbot is hilarious as Beth, a socially awkward but enthusiastic student whose excitement for learning invigorates the play. Beth navigates the challenges of junior year with her friends Ivy (Brianna Martinez), Nell (Victoria Omoregie) and Raelynn (Haley Wong), who make for a perfect high school friend group. The entire cast is a well-oiled machine, bouncing off each other in moments of both stress and humor. The girls in particular have a refreshing bond, as even when in disagreement they feel connected to each other. Each member of the cast brings something unique to their character, including Balaban’s enticing Southern charm, Talbot’s hilarity and hospitality and Wong’s loyalty and love. 

However, the true standout is Isabel Van Natta. Although she is the last cast member to appear, Van Natta quickly steals the show as Shelby Holcomb. Shelby is a former friend of the group who comes back to school after a leave of absence, and her return brings a defiant energy that shakes up the classroom. Shelby is unafraid to speak her mind, and her relationship with Raelynn is the heart of the story — although the two are not always on the best terms, their chemistry is electric. Wong and Van Natta steal the show in its final moments as they look the villains of their lives in the eyes and refuse to back down.

Shelby’s return to school coincides with a controversy that ignites the small town, as Ivy’s dad and other members of the community are accused of sexual assault in the wake of the #MeToo movement. As students and teachers try to grapple with the fallout, they are forced to ask difficult questions: Is the scandal a “witch hunt” that is destroying people’s lives, like in “The Crucible,” or is justice finally being served as the truth comes to light?

Kimberly Belflower’s writing is sharp and insightful, with dialogue that feels true to the characters and comedic moments that mesh flawlessly with the play’s serious subject matter. Director Margot Bordelon makes full use of the stage’s space, giving each actor a moment to shine. The dynamic classroom set, designed by Kristen Robinson, keeps the story grounded, and Zoë Sundra’s costumes, pulled from a variety of eras and styles, remind audience members of their own high school experiences. Sinan Refik Zafar’s sound design stands out, transitioning between scenes with upbeat pop songs before removing the music as the story enters a darker moment. Additionally, Lorde’s “Green Light” plays a crucial role in one of the play’s final scenes.

“John Proctor” beautifully captures the truth of the current high school climate. The students find love and friendship, but they also struggle with the evils of powerful men and betrayal. In their feminism club, Beth and her friends tackle what it means to be a girl. In a world where women are forced to “tone it down” and stray away from conversations that might make others uncomfortable, the girls encourage each other to recognize the truth. They push each other to look closer at the patriarchal system that keeps them all at a disadvantage. Ivy is even forced to grapple with the fact that her loving father may be part of this corrupt system.

The girls think about how the men in their lives move through the world, and the complexities that come from loving a man who is, in one way or another, a villain. The play raises the question: What happens when we are betrayed by the men we trust? When faced with their own manipulative man, the girls must find the power to tell the men they’re the real villains.

“John Proctor is the Villain” is playing now at the Calderwood Pavilion through March 10.

Correction: The show is playing at the Huntington's Calderwood Pavilion, not the Huntington Theatre. 

Summary “John Proctor is the Villain” is an incredible production with a powerful feminist message and an outstanding cast.
5 Stars