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'Abigail/1702' is an audacious 'what-if' story

A review of 'Abigail/1702,' which takes place 10 years after Salem witch trials, at International City Theatre

The actual fate of Abigail Williams, one of the initial accusers in the Salem witch trials, is lost in the mists of history.

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s “Abigail/1702,” now in its West Coast premiere at International City Theatre, is an intriguing “what if?” story that imagines Abigail’s life and fortunes 10 years after the trials had ended.

Aguirre-Sacasa takes up where Arthur Miller left off in his classic “The Crucible,” one of the great benchmarks of the American theater – and he certainly gets points for sheer audacity. Despite some annoying errors and anachronisms, the play frequently enthralls, with the kind of supernatural elements reminiscent of Romulus Linney and Stephen Vincent Benét at their most folkloric.

For the Puritans, the Devil was as real as one’s nearest neighbor. That’s especially true for Abigail (Jennifer Cannon), now living under an assumed name in Boston. Abigail has spent the last decade trying to atone, not only for her deadly perjury, but for her very real compact with Satan himself (wickedly effective Kevin Bailey, who also plays a variety of other roles.)

The healer at a Boston smallpox house, Abigail reluctantly agrees to nurse stricken sailor John (nicely underplayed by Ross Hellwig) through the worst of his illness. When John falls in love with her, Abigail doubts whether she is worthy of such happiness. And indeed, her old sins are about to come home to roost with a vengeance.

Christopher Scott Murillo’s set, Donna Ruzika’s lighting, Kim DeShazo's costumes and Jeff Polunas’ sound beautifully evoke the period ambience. Under director caryn desai’s thoughtful guidance, the cast, which includes young Jace Febo and Michelle Holmes, ratchets up the intensity to a genuinely moving denouement.

Cannon is largely responsible for that catharsis, but her unremitting anguish throughout seems somewhat one-note. One would welcome a flash or two of vestigial sinfulness under all that saintly suffering.

“Abigail/1702,” International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 East Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 24. $46-$48. (562) 436-4610. www.InternationalCityTheatre.org Running time: 2 hours.

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