Robert Brettenaugh, Erin Hammond and Joseph Harris testify in the new witch trial drama Devil's SaltEXPAND
Robert Brettenaugh, Erin Hammond and Joseph Harris testify in the new witch trial drama Devil's Salt
Photo by Miriam Geer

A New Take on the Salem Witch Trials Tries to Correct a Misogynistic Reading of History

A lot of gender theory has passed under the bridge since Arthur Miller dramatized the Salem witch trials as the tragedy of a man martyred by femme-fatale vindictiveness and an unforgiving wife. In a sense, the stage has been begging ever since for a compelling feminist corrective to The Crucible’s somewhat phallocentric apology for what many now see as a foundational injustice of New World patriarchal power.

Unfortunately for Devil’s Salt, the revisionist period drama by Los Angeles playwright Jovanka Bach that is finally receiving a posthumous world premiere at Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (Bach died in 2006), getting the theory right is only half the battle. The other half — a convincing sense of what everyday life looked and sounded like in a world as alien and hostile to 21st-century sensibilities as was 17th-century Puritanism — is where director John Stark’s otherwise handsome production comes up short.

Tom Groenwald stars as Hooker Wainwright, the fictional albeit censorious governor of Plymouth Colony (on designer Jaret Sacrey’s slatted-wood set), whose public piety masks an unhealthy preoccupation with the citizenry’s sexual pursuits, both real and imagined. But the person who most arouses both his ire and unreciprocated desire is the fetching Hannah Mulwray (Katharina Magdalena), the town’s guileless and saintly midwife and herbal healer.

Hannah makes an unusually vulnerable target for Hooker’s lethal combination of sanctimony, obsession and vindictiveness. Her careless proclivity for showing a little too much ankle in public is only aggravated by her after-hours hobby of advocating an alt gospel of love and tolerance that is at direct odds with Puritan doctrines such as predestination and a wrathful, unmerciful God. In a society where women are thought to have a sinful nature and where a consort of Satan is seen behind every crop failure and skin rash, Hannah is primed for a downfall.

That comes when Hooker exhumes a deformed stillborn baby, which the midwife has secretly buried in order to shield its parents (Erin Hammond and Joseph Michael Harris) from diabolical accusations. The incriminating remains persuade reluctant colony elders (Alexander Wells, Dana Kelly) to join Hooker in prosecuting her for witchcraft. Act 2’s trial, in which Hannah claims to be the anointed prophetess of God, goes no better for her than a similar defense did for Jesus or Joan of Arc.

It is the play’s miscarriages of drama, however, that prove more troubling. Magdalena has the thankless chore of retrofitting human dimensions into a character that is little more than a hagiographic abstraction. And both Groenwald and Wells strain to reconcile their characters' contortions of arbitrary flip-flops over the question of Hannah’s guilt. Meanwhile, the production’s grasp of period detail is flaccid enough to have Hannah and her followers sing a Shaker hymn 150 years before it was composed and to imagine a 17th-century Puritan congregation in which female preaching of any kind wasn’t an excommunicable offense.

Despite some delightful performances by the supporting ensemble, such careless yet crippling flaws ultimately flatten the dramatic impact and blunt the point of Bach’s gender-savvy argument. The squandered opportunity is good news only if you’re Arthur Miller's literary executor; it leaves The Crucible unchallenged in its 63-year-old blast of misogynist libel from the prestigious redoubt of the theater’s literary canon.

Odyssey Theatre, 2055 Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A.; through Dec. 18. Johnstarkproductions.com.

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