Review: Scarpelli and Kehde's 'Mercy' a Bewitching Drama

Feb 24, 2016

Mercy Lewis (Haley Lambert) stands above the townspeople of Salem.
Credit Renae Phillips

Although the Kanawha Valley has had some economic struggles in recent years, there still stands a full-functioning and devoted theatre and arts community. Forces from all around the valley continue to converge on a production, and a receptive audience is there to receive it (even on a Sunday matinee no less!).

The Contemporary Youth Arts Company’s Mercy upholds Charleston’s rich theatre tradition with music from composer, Mark Scarpelli, and lyrics and book by playwright, Dan Kehde. The story is set in Salem, Massachusetts, site of the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Problems abound in Salem: harsh winters, wilted crops, and raids from Native American tribes vex the people of Salem. The title character, 18-year old Mercy Lewis (Haley Lambert), is no stranger to these troubles—three years earlier she had witnessed her father and mother die at the hands of Wabanaki tribesmen. The trauma from this tragic event plagues the young Mercy and clouds her reality with psychosis and visions of demons lurking in Salem.

Eager to find a scapegoat for their problems, the people turn to the impassioned Reverend Samuel Parris (Jonathan Tucker), who claims that Satan’s minions plague the villagers, sparking a witch hunt fueled by the delusions of Mercy Lewis.

Although the material in Mercy is clearly heavy and dark, the young actors of the CYAC handle it maturely. Mercy, West-Indian slave Tituba (Erin Martin), George Burroughs (Aaron Stull), provide ample drama and emotion in the harrowing trials that ensue. Mercy’s emotions are palatable as the audience witnesses her parents’ deaths and the resulting psychosis.

George Burroughs (Aaron Stull, center) in trial under suspicions of witchcraft.
Credit Renae Phillips

Though the story is a little confusing for a first-timer, the drama shined through. It may have benefited from a bit of streamlining and less back-and-forth jumping between two scenes—though, admittedly, the counterpoint between Mercy’s past and Rev. Parris’s sermon was powerful and effective.

The scenery provided by Kehde, Aaron Stull, Rob Royce and Kim Javins brings us into the world of Salem. Interestingly, the pulpit from which Rev. Parris proudly proclaims his sermons extends into the audience, and the left side of the audience seating serves as the pews for the faithful parishioners. This, along with characters racing up and down the aisles and shouting from all directions, helped create an immersive atmosphere.

Rev. Parris (Jonathan Tucker) looks onto his congregation from his over-hanging pulpit.
Credit Renae Phillips

The plot was accented with enticing music from Mark Scarpelli, who wrote, directed, and performed the music on keyboard together with local string players and a second keyboardist. Scarpelli opened up his harmonic palette by infusing diminished and augmented chords underneath his flowing melodies. Pounding rhythms from the percussion added to the drama of Mercy’s past, while a beautiful aria from Tituba (“Red Moon”) showed off the composer’s lyricism and intimacy. Additionally, the live string players added a nice touch to the sound, though, the synthetic string sounds were a bit reminiscent of an old-school Final Fantasy game.

Overall, Mercy was a captivating, interesting drama, executed well by mostly young artists. I applaud the creators for not sugarcoating the material for a young cast and the CYAC for continuing Charleston’s rich heritage in theatre.