“Never be so polite, you forget your power.”
—Taylor Swift, “marjorie”
John Proctor Is the Villain by Kimberly Belflower premiered to rave reviews at Studio Theatre in 2022. The Mask and Bauble Dramatic Society at Georgetown University brings us a glorious new production, made especially authentic because the college students in the cast are only a little older than the high school student protagonists.
John Proctor Is the Villain takes place in 2019, at Helen County High, the only high school in a one-stoplight town in Northeast Georgia. We are in the classroom of former golden boy Carter Smith (Nate Findlay). The class is reading The Crucible, the legendary work by Arthur Miller analogizing the 1692 Salem Witch Trials to Joseph McCarthy’s 1950s Red Scare.
Miller’s hero is John Proctor, a married man who has an affair with the young girl Abigail, principal accuser of the alleged witches.
Smith, played with smarmily accurate charm by Findlay, is convinced that John Proctor, who does not “name names” of others in thrall to the Devil, is one of the noblest characters in American drama.
Smith is challenged in this assumption many times — by his students, by the results of his own behavior, and by the play itself, an understated masterpiece and a classic study of male predation and female empowerment. John Proctor Is the Villain has a message of hope, too — of mended relationships, critical insights, and the fresh, funny feminism of Generation Z.
The junior-year girls in Smith’s class have more on their minds than the syllabus. They want to form a feminist club. Miss Gallagher (Sydney Cook), the new counselor, has doubts. Smith offers to be the faculty sponsor — if they tie it in with their work on The Crucible, and, of course, invite boys.
Belflower is a virtuoso at writing young girls; she understands their dreams, their fears, and their relationship to their bodies. They are a captivating group:
Beth (Lainey Lyle) is super-studious and super-organized, the kind of girl who is class president not just once but every year. She has a crush on Smith but is blissfully unaware of it. Lyle plays her with a deep understanding of her vulnerability and her denial. Ivy (CC Mesa) hopes to become a veterinarian. Her father’s infidelity forms a key element of the plot. Mesa’s pitch-perfect response to that incident will be familiar to anyone who has been disappointed by a once-beloved figure.
Raelynn (Shay Pratt) is recovering from a terrible betrayal. Her boyfriend, Lee (Timothy Cole-French), slept with her best friend, Shelby (Marre Gaffigan). This is the Christian South, and Raelynn is very confused about what love means or whether she really is in love with him. In a shocking scene, we find out why getting back with Lee might not be such a good idea.
As Raelynn, Pratt conveys both her emotionality and her tentative steps toward individuality with sensitivity. Cole-French, as bad-boy Lee, looks like he might explode at any minute. He manipulates Raelynn, but the chemistry between them, beautifully conveyed by both, is still very real.
Nell (Tyller Mensa) is down-to-earth, from Atlanta, and new to the scene. She’s not interested in church. When the topic comes up — should Raelynn sleep with Lee again? — Nell’s answer is, definitely, NO. Mensa has a firm grasp of Nell’s relative sophistication. She connects with Rishu Nevatia as Mason, and sparks fly. Mason goes from an unengaged slacker (“So we’re reading like, the Whole Play?”) to a slightly stunned charmer with a new appreciation of smart girls.
Music is a frequent topic: Taylor Swift, Lorde, Beyoncé. They all like Taylor Swift:
NELL: I do kinda like that song she wrote about John Mayer
IVY (singing and clutching her heart): “I took your matches before fire could catch me”
IVY and RAELYNN (also singing): “so don’t look now”
ALL (singing): “I’m shining like fireworks OVER YOUR SAD EMPTY TOWN”
Raelynn kind of hopes Swift murders John Mayer one day.
Shelby (Marre Gaffigan) walks in, and time stops. The rift between her and Raelynn is palpable. Shelby is the kind of girl who sits in the back, makes sarcastic remarks, and wonders why no one realizes how intelligent she really is. She is not happy about what she has done to her best friend. Gaffigan’s performance is just as electric as her character.
Shelby, it turns out, has been betrayed too. There are layers and layers of compromised relationships, among them John Proctor and wronged wife Elizabeth in The Crucible, Shelby and Raelynn’s ruined friendship, and the estrangement between Raelynn and Lee.
Sydney Cook’s Miss Gallagher has a more ambiguous role. Conscientious and eager to fulfill her duties, she becomes increasingly insightful and sympathetic as she learns the truth about what surrounds her.
In a 2021 interview with Studio’s literary director Adrien-Alice Hansel, Kimberly Belflower said,
The play is less about me being “down with The Crucible” and more about the way The Crucible is being simplified and then passed on — because that’s what the lesson plans are and that’s what the curriculum is. #MeToo pushed people to look at what systems we’re handing down, systems that we get trapped in and don’t know how to imagine things outside of — The Crucible seems emblematic of that to me.
The set, by Cliff Stern, is full of slyly humorous touches. There are two flags: the American flag and the state flag of Georgia. The posters depict, among others, the fantasy of the South (Gone with the Wind), the reality of the South (To Kill a Mockingbird), and (no comment) Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. The expertly designed costumes (Ainsley Atwood) and lighting (Lily Marino) are supplemented by highly creative sound design (Sean Rafferty).
Director Molly Evanko is to be congratulated for this picture-perfect portrayal of love, power, and the difference between John Proctor’s honor and the real meaning of a woman’s life. We will never look at The Crucible in quite the same way again.
We exit politely (but not too politely) to the sounds of Lorde’s “I’m waiting for it, that green light, I want it.”
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 10 minutes, with no intermission.
John Proctor Is the Villain plays October 26–29 and November 1, 2, and 4, 2023, presented by Mask and Bauble Dramatic Society performing at Georgetown University in Poulton Hall, Stage III, 1421 37th Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($10, $5 for students) are available online.
The program for John Proctor Is the Villain is online here.
John Proctor Is the Villain
By Kimberly Belflower
Director: Molly Evanko (MSB ’25)
Asst. Director: Maya Dow (CAS ’26)
Producer: Grady McDonough (MSB ’26)
Asst. Producer: Abby Scamardella (CAS ’26)
Stage Manager: Daisy Fynewever (CAS ’26)
Asst. Stage Manager: Ruby Lillie (CAS ’27)
Asst. Stage Manager: Ruth Abromovitz (CAS ’27)
Technical Director: Isabella Williams (SFS ’24)
Asst. Technical Director: Kate Nonnenkamp (CAS ’27)
Carter Smith: Nate Findlay (CAS ’27)
Shelby Holcomb: Marre Gaffigan (CAS ’26)
Beth Powell: Lainey Lyle (SFS ’27)
Nell Shaw: Tyller Mensa (CAS ’24)
Ivy Watkins: CC Mesa (SFS ’26)
Raelynn Nix: Shay Pratt (CAS ’26)
Mason Adams: Rishu Nevatia (CAS ’27)
Lee Turner: Timothy Cole-French (SFS ’26)
Bailey Gallagher: Sydney Cook (CAS ’23)
Master Carpenter: Sophie Maretz (CAS ’26)
Set Designer: Cliff Stern (CAS ’26)
Set Dresser: Benjamin Fishbein (CAS ’26)
Scenic Artist: Molly Kenney (CAS ’25)
Lighting Designer: Lily Marino (CAS ’26)
Lights Mentor: Briana Sparacino (SFS ’25)
Assistant Lights Designer: Brooke Bergin (CAS ’27)
Sound Designer: Sean Rafferty (CAS ’26)
Assistant Sound Designer: Scott Burke (CAS ’26)
Costume Designer: Ainsley Atwood (SFS ’26)
Assistant Costume Designer: Eileen Miller (SFS ’26)
Props Designer: Mariana Salinas (CAS ’25)
Publicity Director: Daniel Tomas (SFS ’26)
Graphic Designer: Anastasia Kelly (CAS ’26)
Hair & Make-Up Designer: Olivia Mason (CAS ’26)
Dramaturg: Jolie Ouyang (CAS ’24)
Assistant Dramaturg: Isabelle Darman (CAS ’27)
Co-Cruise Director: Molly Kenney (CAS ’25)
Co-Cruise Director: Sabrina Perez (CAS ’24)
Build Crew: Anna Dewey (CAS ’26)
Build Crew: Tiffany Cowan (SFS ’25)
Build Crew: Aidan Green (CAS ’27)
Build Crew: Jina Zhao (SFS ’24)
Build Crew: Antoinette Kersaint (CAS ’25)
Lights Board Op: Luke Suko (SFS ’27)
Gen Z feminism is the hero in ‘John Proctor Is the Villain’ (column by John Stoltenberg, May 26, 2022)