As literally written and usually played, Abigail Williams is the antagonist of “The Crucible,” Arthur Miller’s 1953 dramatized and fictionalized play about the Salem Witch Trials.
The seductive 17-year-old has had an affair with her married 35-year-old employer, John Proctor, and subsequently lost her job. Still in love with him, she takes advantage of the mass hysteria to accuse his wife, Elizabeth, of witchcraft in the hope of replacing her.
But Dani Stoller, the Abigail in the Olney Theatre Center production, sees her as more complex, with more justification for her actions.
She believes labeling Abigail as the “antagonist” in the stage directions is no more obligatory than describing Elizabeth Proctor as “unattractive” – not true of Joan Allen in the 1996 film version, Stoller said.
This is the second time Stoller is playing Abigail.
“First time round I saw her as sexual only, as a villain,” she said. “There is so much more to this woman.”
In an age of #MeToo, one can see the affair between Abigail and Proctor in a different light than usual, Stoller added. “He’s cheating on his wife and sleeping with a young woman who’s working for them and was a virgin and an orphan. He made promises to her and broke them. But we don’t blame the man.”
This is the second time Eleanor Holdridge is staging “The Crucible.” While working on the Olney production, it seemed to her “like a totally different play. I’m 12 years older, and a different person, so I see it less idealistically.”
For Holdridge, the village girls who instigate the witch hunt aren’t monsters but become monstrous, because the social fabric of the world they live in doesn’t allow them power and sexual freedom.
Holdridge agreed in some sense that Abigail is still the antagonist; she accuses an innocent woman who could be sentenced to death. The question, though, is why.
“The play looks at it from a very dated male gaze,” she said. “It shows what society does to a girl who has feelings. It’s not just that adultery is wrong; Proctor has created a monster by abusing the power he has over her. He should not have taken advantage of his position – it was the single error of his life.”
Miller intended the play as an allegory of the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which called him to testify about possible Communist affiliation. Like Proctor in the play, he refused to “name names.”
But Holdridge noted that increasingly, analysts of “The Crucible” focus on the personal rather than the political – connecting Proctor’s sense of guilt with Miller’s own. The then-married, older playwright had an affair with Marilyn Monroe (whom he later married).
Perhaps, they speculate, that’s why Miller made Proctor much younger and Abigail older than their historical counterparts.
Her duty as a director, Holdridge said, is “to ask why this play, why now?” Despite her misgivings about its viewpoint, “The Crucible” continues to draw her “because of the incredible way in which Miller draws characters and the language.”
Ironically, too, the character she finds most interesting is neither Proctor nor Abigail, but Reverend Hale. At first a devoted servant of the tribunal that judges (and condemns) the accused, he later tries to save the suspects, including Proctor.
“Hale tries to see the truth, whereas everyone else has a point of view and doubles-down in it,’ Holdridge said.
The cast includes Chris Genebach as Proctor; Rachel Zampelli, as his wife Elizabeth; and Scott Parkinson, in his Olney Theatre debut, as Reverend Hale.
The production includes post-show discussions and special events.
“The Crucible” opens April 18 and continues through May 20 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. For tickets, call the box office at 301-924-3400. For more information, visit the theater’s website at www.olneytheatre.org.