When the torrent of #MeToo allegations against powerful men began cascading in the fall of 2017, playwright Kimberly Belflower felt “rocked.” Not only did the revelations of sexual assault and harassment shift her perspective on her own past, but it spurred her to write a play, “John Proctor Is the Villain,” that examines #MeToo’s fallout on a high school in the South.
“It put me back in my teenage self and made me reconsider things that happened to me and my friends,” Belflower says, “and suddenly having the new vocabulary from this movement to reframe these past experiences.”
The summer before, Belflower had read Stacy Schiff’s nonfiction book “The Witches: Salem, 1692,” which opened her eyes to the realities of Salem witch trial figures like the real-life Abigail Williams, who had been portrayed as the ringleader of young accusers in Arthur Miller’s 1953 play “The Crucible.”
“It goes into all of these different facets that I had never heard about, the inherent violence in these girls’ lives, that many had experienced sexual trauma and abuse,” Belflower says during a break in rehearsal for “John Proctor Is the Villain,” which is being staged by the Huntington at the Calderwood Pavilion through March 10.
After hearing some prominent men caution against “witch hunts” as #MeToo accusations flooded the media, she decided to reread “The Crucible.” Looking at it through a new lens, she was struck by how different the play felt from the one she remembered. In school, Proctor is held up as a courageous truth-teller for refusing to lie in order to save himself. “But I reread it, and John Proctor is kind of the villain. His flaws are treated as virtues.”
In the coming-of-age story she dreamt up, a high school class in Georgia begins studying “The Crucible” just as the #MeToo wave comes crashing. In Belflower’s play, one of the students who helps launch a feminism club at the school is crushed when accusations are made against her prominent father. Meanwhile, anxious preacher’s daughter Raelynn (Haley Wong) has broken up with longtime boyfriend Lee (Benjamin Izaak) after learning he cheated on her with her best friend, Shelby (Isabel Van Natta). Raelynn is determined to move on, but Shelby, who hasn’t been seen in months, suddenly returns from a mysterious exile. “You see them inch their way back to each other as buoys in the sea of everything else that’s going on around them,” Belflower says.
In several scenes, the students discuss “The Crucible” in class, including debating the girls’ motivations for igniting the witchcraft accusations. “As their work on ‘The Crucible’ develops, they start to make some parallels to different power structures in their own lives,” Belflower says. “I think our society is taught to discount the voices of young people and girls specifically, but young women always find a way to make themselves heard.”
While Belflower’s play questions the relevance of “The Crucible” as an allegory for McCarthyism and making Proctor the hero, her objection to the classic stems largely from the way it’s taught in school. Despite that, she was able to secure the rights from Arthur Miller’s estate to use sections of it in her play. “People assume I hate ‘The Crucible,’ but … it would be miserable to spend eight years of my life in conversation with something I hated.”
Growing up in Appalachian Georgia in a family of Southern Baptists, Belflower says “purity culture,” with its chaste expectations for young women, dominated. Yet she wanted to show “a different side” of the world that shaped her. “I think the South is such a misunderstood place. Rural Appalachia feels connected to Salem in 1692. There’s this isolation and being slightly behind the times.”
When the #MeToo movement arose, Belflower thought back on her own experiences in high school and the gender dynamics at play. “There were things that happened that we kind of brushed away as boys just being boys and, like, ‘We were all drunk at a party,’ versus ‘That was coercive and not OK.’ So it’s both systemic and cultural.”
For Margot Bordelon, who’s directing the Huntington production, the internalized misogyny of the young female characters in the play resonated strongly with her. “I think so much of the interrogation that’s coming out of #MeToo is not just, ‘Let’s vanquish our own shame by talking about these [messed-up] experiences that have happened to all women.’ But how do we also interrogate how women are complicit in it, how we judge other women, how we uphold standards of the patriarchy?”
“The Crucible” isn’t the only art that inspired “John Proctor.” Belflower cites the influences of Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, authors Joan Didion and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, but most importantly Lorde’s acclaimed 2017 album “Melodrama,” which explores a young woman’s self-discovery amid heartbreak.
Belflower has often focused on the lives of teenagers in her plays. In “The Use of Wildflowers,” an adolescent living in 1930s Appalachia is sent away to work in a factory, where she begins to learn who she is and what she wants. In “Gondol,” Belflower intertwines stories of a teenage Emily Brontë coping with the death of her sisters, a contemporary adolescent stuck in an oppressive suburban existence, and Belflower’s own tale of losing her childhood home.
“I think my own girlhood lives very deeply in me, in a way that still feels really fresh even though I’m in my late 30s,” Belflower says. “Those are the years when the most change happens in your life, where you’re figuring out who you want to be in the world and practicing identities.
“The power of female friendship at that age is so deep and transformational. You’re coming into your desire for the first time, and your body is changing. It’s all new and heightened, and the stakes are high. It’s such a potent time.”
JOHN PROCTOR IS THE VILLAIN
Presented by the Huntington. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through March 10. Tickets from $30. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.