Playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa was in Chicago early in 2008, rehearsing the world premiere of a new play he had just written for Steppenwolf Theatre. The company was staging Arthur Miller’s legendary 1953 Tony Award winner, The Crucible, on its mainstage.
“I had, of course, read it in high school,” he recalls, “and later seen it in a fine production at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.” (He’s a native of the nation’s capital.)
The Steppenwolf production reminded him of the play’s greatness “so much so that I bought the script in the lobby of the theater. In it, Miller has a lot of notes and annotations about the characters. He talks about the history and kind of contextualizes the play.”
The character of 17-year-old Abigail Williams, whose accusations of witchcraft were the catalyst for the Salem Witch Trials in 1692, especially intrigued Aguirre-Sacasa.
“She’s important at the start of The Crucible,” he says, “but she sort of leaves the action three-quarters of the way through. She vanishes and isn’t around for the final act to see what she has wrought. I thought that was kind of interesting.”
He read Miller’s notes at the end of the play.
“For the Abigail Williams character, there was a very cryptic sentence, something to the effect of, ‘little is known about what happened to Abigail Williams after the Salem Witch Trials. The legend has it that she went to Boston and became a harlot.’ I read that in my hotel room in Chicago, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I said, ‘Well, that’s a play.’ ”
From that seed sprouted Abigail/1702, Aguirre-Sacasa’s exploration of what really happened to her after she stole away in search of a new life. His script gets its world premiere at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, opening on Jan. 24 (through Feb. 17). In his reconstruction of Abigail’s life, Aguirre-Sacasa envisions that a decade has passed and she is struggling to atone for her sins. She’s caring for a dying young sailor when someone from her past in Salem catches up with her.
“I’d never written a historical play,” the writer — who has created plots for everything from The Amazing Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four for Marvel Comics to the hit TV series Glee — told me in a recent interview, “and I thought that would be kind of an interesting challenge, so I started working on it.
I spent several months working on this stodgy, historical play.”
It wasn’t working and he could feel it.
Going back to Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of his favorite writers, he was reminded of New England ghost stories and supernatural tales about Puritans and the Devil.
“Again I had one of those hair-on-the-back-of-my-neck-stood-up-on-end moments because I realized what I wanted to write was not an historical play about Abigail Williams, but more of a phantasmagoria, a New England witch play with Abigail Williams as its main character.”
So how did Abigail/1702 end up as a world premiere in Cincinnati? That’s thanks to Aguirre-Sacasa’s connection to the Playhouse’s new artistic director Blake Robison, who had commissioned the writer for an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s thriller The Picture of Dorian Gray at his former company, Round House Theatre in suburban Maryland.
Robison calls that script “bold and dangerous” and adds, “We had a blast working on it. When I found out I was coming to the Playhouse, one of the first calls I made was to Roberto because I value his voice as an artist so much.” Robison asked what the playwright was working on. “He sent me this play and I read it. I sent him a text message and said, ‘You wrote an awesome play. I want to do it.’ ”
Robison is directing this production. “Abigail is quite unlike any of his other plays and quite unlike anything I’ve seen onstage before. To go back into our collective consciousness and pluck this famous figure from the dramatic canon and imagine what her life must be like 10 years down the road is a wonderfully creative act.”
Aguirre-Sacasa has been in and out of town (Glee went on its Christmas hiatus just as rehearsals began here in Cincinnati) as the show is being assembled.
“It feels pretty much there now,” he says of the script’s shape and finality. “But this will be in a very different space than I’m used to, a much larger theater.” (Robison is mounting the production on the Playhouse’s Robert S. Marx mainstage.)
“Though it’s a small play, just four actors, it does have big scenes. There might be some adjustments based on the new theater.”
He’s excited to work with Robison again. “My favorite thing about Blake is that he is all about the story. We’re both storytellers. We are most excited by plays that have strong narratives, drives. He brings a real muscularity and energy to the proceedings. I don’t particularly like quiet, timid plays. I like plays with a lot of conflicts, a lot of drive.
“Most of my plays are high-wire acts with characters in extremis,” Aguirre-Sacasa explains. “Abigail Williams is a good example: The stakes could not be higher — beyond life and death, like eternal salvation or eternal damnation. It’s not a quiet play by any stretch of the imagination. It has supernatural elements; it has a love story. It’s kind of full-blooded, and I think Blake really embraces that.”
With his success in other media, I asked Aguirre-Sacasa if theater is still his driving passion. His answer was quick.
“Absolutely. One of the things I’m really grateful to Blake for is that he reminds me of my true passion for storytelling. I didn’t grow up dreaming to be a TV writer. I grew up dreaming to be a playwright. Nothing is more important now than getting the play up and getting it right and in front of an audience. This production is an opportunity to hang onto a touchstone, to keep myself tethered.”
ABIGAIL/1702 premieres at Playhouse in the Park Jan. 24 and runs through Feb. 17. More info:
513-421-3888 or www.cincyplay.com.