Playwright Laurie Brooks takes an interesting idea from Jeff Church, the Coterie theater’s artistic director, and makes the most of it in a compact piece for young audiences that impresses as an act of creative imagination while building to an explosive, dramatic conclusion.
“Afflicted: Daughters of Salem” is a sort of prequel to Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” the widely read and often-staged drama about the 17th-century witch trials in Salem, Mass. Brooks restricts her focus to the five Puritan girls and a slave from Barbados who were accused of witchcraft but saved their skins by essentially “naming names” — inventing stories implicating townspeople as witches in league with the devil. This co-production with the UMKC Theatre Department is a sharp-looking show, thanks to the atmospheric scenic design suggesting a claustrophobic forest by Jeff Ridenour, dynamic lighting by Kristopher Kirkwood and costumes by Tyler Wilson. An effective sound design by Sarah Putts also makes an important contribution.
The performances are focused and vivid. As the five girls who come together in a “secret society” during nocturnal rituals in the woods, Nicole Greenberg, Emily Shackelford, Emily Nan Phillips, Hannah Thompson and Jessica Jensen project the personal politics of jealousy and resentment common to all teenagers in clearly delineated performances. As Tituba, who functions as the girls’ spiritual mentor, the charismatic Alisha Espinosa commands the stage with authority. Church pays close attention to nuances as he guides the show to its final, dramatically riveting moment when the panic-stricken girls intuitively declare themselves “afflicted” by evil spirits. Brooks finds opportunities for irony and humor, but her unwavering focus depicts a world of smothering religious dogma and impenetrable oppression. The notion of kids sneaking off to create their own mini-society as an act of defiance is utterly plausible.
One of Brooks’ trademarks is the post-show “forum,” in which the actors return to the stage in character, and the audience is asked to voice opinions about what they’ve seen.
Espinosa as Tituba acts as the moderator and calls on viewers to express feelings about the girls’ actions and their guilt or innocence, as well as views about forgiveness and compassion.
Plays for young audiences often sacrifice dramatic integrity for educational value, but “Afflicted” is an ideally balanced piece of writing. This show really packs a punch.
“Afflicted” runs through Feb. 23 at the Coterie at Crown Center. For more information, call 816-474-6552 or go to TheCoterie.org.