The Whistler in the Dark production does right by the gaunt power of Vinegar Tom—if only dramatist Caryl Churchill hadn’t served up such a tidily edifying coven of alleged sorceresses.
Vinegar Tom by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Mac Young. Set Design by Mac Young. Songs by Molly Allis, Juliet Olivier, and Veronica Barron. Lighting by P.J. Strachman. Costumes by Emily Woods Hogue. Staged by Whistler in the Dark Theatre. At the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA, through February 2nd.
By Bill Marx
Men destroying women because of their sexual power? Males uneasy with female genitalia to the point of hysteria? If nothing else, British playwright Caryl Churchill’s 1976 play Vinegar Tom serves as a reminder that today’s right-wing war on women, which often concentrates on reproductive rights, has been going on for a very long time. Set in a backwoods English village during the seventeenth century, the feminist script (which the dramatist developed with the theater collective Monstrous Regiment) uses the horrific punishment meted out to women accused of witchcraft to make archetypal connections with the prejudiced treatment and/or images of females today. Churchill makes sure we get the point by inserting songs whose lyrics underline, often with playful irony, the supposed threat posed by “evil women” to the status quo.
Of course, in Vinegar Tom women are not evil doers but victims of injustice. It is men, propelled by their puritanical theology, unlimited authority, and fear of intimacy, who use the specter of sin to judge and punish. Whistler in the Dark associate artistic director Mac Young, whose staging is admirably sensitive, argues that the script is “first about being human, and then about being a woman.” But the males here are either blatant sadists or irredeemable lunkheads (a Freudian joke features a guy chasing a woman whom he believes has stolen the power of his penis). Women, not men, are capable of empathy. When a woman becomes sick, her husband demands that she just snap out of it and get to work.
By setting the action in a misbegotten hamlet rife with superstition (there’s nary a thinker in sight) and then focusing on the machinations that send helpless women to the gallows, Churchill creates a grim but didactic cartoon that shoots accused witches in a barrel. The playwright is a little too intent on focusing on the power women don’t have rather than the power they have. Granted, females don’t have democracy or positions of authority—but they do have language.
There are flickers of compelling writing here where Churchill gives a voice to the voiceless as the women are herded off to torture or death after a couple concludes that things are not going well on their farm and it is not their fault. The pair believe a neighbor, the elderly Joan (a restrained Karin Webb), has put a curse on their land and call in a witch hunter to deal with the spellbinder. Of course, once he starts looking for witches, they pop up everywhere. “Confessing” to the inquisitor, Joan conjures up a passionately colorful fantasia of wished-for violence. Her daughter, Alice (a feisty Becca A. Lewis), also accused of witchcraft, has a scene in which she, in jest, creates a clay doll in order to punish a man who is ignoring her. The joy of exerting pain, albeit via the magical thinking that will end up destroying her, is well expressed, as is the way Churchill has Alice’s prosecutor use that dream of control to damn her.
But all too often Vinegar Tom grinds out your standard melodramatic scenes of innocence crushed, accompanied by the vengeful rantings of the deluded and the spiritual rationalizations of the witch hunters. Yes, the imaginations of these figures are circumscribed by the times—but shouldn’t there be intimations of something more, at least for the sake of conflict? The intriguing perspective of a “good” witch, a sort of proto-feminist, nature healer (played with dignity by Obehi Jance), is underdeveloped. In the first scene, a man and Alice are seen rutting away, their post-coital conversation leading to talk of the devil almost immediately. Neither seems to have had a very good time (at least in the Whistler in the Dark production), and this lack of sensual pleasure is omnipresent in the play. Sex is all sin and no fun (aside from Alice’s allusions to some thrills in the past). The problem is that Churchill is in danger of supporting the puritanism she is obviously condemning.
The production’s jazzy and sometimes snappy songs, composed by Molly Allis, Juliet Olivier, and Veronica Barron (Barron and Tony Leva perform them with members of the cast), don’t complicate the play’s message but mischievously underline it. A Boston staging of Vinegar Tom in the late ’80s played up the subject matter’s potential for indulging in the sexual heebie jeebies, supplying lots of heaving, screaming, and villainous chortling. Young has wisely gone to the other extreme—the victims are portrayed as stoic, almost accepting, while the witch killers (led by a matter-of-fact David Anderson as Packer) are presented as methodically doing their jobs, poking sharp needles into ladies’ bare legs (in the search for bloodless spots) with a minimum of self-righteous smirking.
The costumes are simple, and the set, designed by Young, is an open space framed by the outline of a house with an attic reserved for stubbornly independent women who won’t follow orders and marry a brute they are sure to hate. The Whistler in the Dark production does right by the gaunt power of Vinegar Tom—if only Churchill hadn’t served up such a tidily edifying coven of alleged sorceresses.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.