A provocative Villain

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Left to right: Brianna Martinez, Jules Talbot, Victoria Omoregie, Haley Wong in John Proctor is the Villain; directed by Margot Bordelon. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Left to right: Brianna Martinez, Jules Talbot, Victoria Omoregie, Haley Wong in John Proctor is the Villain; directed by Margot Bordelon. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

John Proctor Is the Villain, Huntington Theatre, Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through March 10. 617-933-8600 or huntimgtomtheatre.org

Re-reading a classic drama can change a playwright's perception of the male protagonist and the work itself. So it goes for North Georgia-bred Kimberly Belflower and the 1953 Arthur Miller work ''The Crucible." As the Huntington Theatre playbill for the area premiere of her 2018 play "John Proctor Is the Villain" notes, Belflower was taught in high school that "John Proctor is the beacon of goodness and the girls are hysterical."

With her re-reading, she arrived at the title of her play. Under the driving direction of Margot Bordelon, a strong Huntington cast empowers that provocative conclusion with #MeToo era immediacy.

Inspired by her own experience, Belflower has fittingly set her "John Proctor Is the Villain" in a current day Appalachian Georgia high school classroom. English teacher Carter Smith—explaining that 200 were charged and 20 executed in the 1692 Salem witch trials in a time of mass hysteria—describes the drama unit choice "The Crucible" as an "allegory for McCarthyism."

Smith submits that Proctor is "one of the best characters ever" and considers him a "great hero. Conflicted student Shelby Holcomb counters that married Proctor is a villain and never apologized to Abigail Williams, with whom he had an affair. Tellingly, female classmates, whose feminism club has been rejected by the school, find themselves defending Abigail and young girls accused of dancing naked and consorting with the devil.

As Belflower's clever play develops, the class, especially female students, relate the claims about various characters in Miller's frequently staged and very admired play to accusations and suspicions about the people in their own lives. Classmates wonder about the reason why Shelby was away for six months. Standout student Beth Powell feels that Smith is the best teacher, but troubling questions arise about his own actions outside of class.

Ivy Watkins struggles to cope with accusations brought against her father by his former secretary. At the same time, Raelynn Nix resists efforts by inappropriate ex-boyfriend Lee Turner to persuade her that he has changed.

While a serious play with striking extrapolations to modern day issues, as was true of Miller's own play, "John Proctor Is the Villain" does balance dramatic situations with humorous and lighter moments and embrace the growing independence of its young characters, particularly the female ones. Early on female students speak of Smith as "hot" and comment suggestively about him. Mason Adams, seemingly sincere, calls Nell Shaw 'cool', who states "I'm super not cool" and asks her to hang out. There is an amusing confusion of 'sabbatical' and (Jewish) 'Sabbath.' When four of the female classmates scream and jump, entering Lee and Mason facetiously ask if there is "actual witchcraft in here?"

Belflower's play, neither strident nor didactic, does compel attention for the troubling questions it poses. In designer Kristen Robinson's well-detailed classroom, Huntington's stellar cast deliver vivid answers in both dialogue and movement, the latter most notably in a kind of closing dance of empowerment.

Jules Talbot captures Beth's early reticence and eventual openness. Isabel Van Natta is riveting as outspoken yet vulnerable Shelby. Brianna Martinez has all of Ivy's earnestness and insecurity. Haley Wong catches Raelynn's self-validation and inner strength. Victoria Omoregie smartly balances Nell's engaging personality and insightfulness. Benjamin Izaak finds Lee's clueless moments, while Maanav Aryan Goyal captures Mason's growing understanding of fellow female classmates. Olivia Hebert has school counselor Bailey Gallagher's real attempts at guidance. Japhet Balaban has all of Smith's complexity as an admired teacher and an enigmatic personality.

Belflower, in a playbill conversation, speaks of "examining cycles of power, cycles of abuse, how cycles of teaching "The Crucible" the same way over and over again leads to one rigid interpretation." In his own way Miller was examining cycles in the 1950's, and the play's warning about naming names and guilt by association do relate to Nixon's 1970's enemies list and Trump's ongoing threats to those who oppose his election denial and dictatorship dreams.

Fans of the Miller play will have to decide how the Belflower play responds to "The Crucible." The dazzling staging of "John Proctor Is the Villain" should have all theatergoers studying both plays for their respective timely insights.