Staff Writer, Managing Editor
Directed by Jon Foley Sherman, visiting professor of theater, The theater department’s latest production of Caryl Churchill’s dark, overtly disturbing play, Vinegar Tom, opened Thursday and ran through Sunday. Set in 17th century London during the witch hysteria that consumed most of the population, it is described as being “a play about witches with no witches in it.”
Through the use of dry humor and grim, disturbing scenes, the play illustrates how, when faced with a bleak situation, people look for someone or something to blame for their own shortcomings. In this case women who could be accused of witchcraft become scapegoats.
The play itself was written in the ’70s, when feminism was at full force and women were fighting for equal rights. Vinegar Tom adopts a feminist perspective to focus on the underlying reality of 17th century witch hunts and witch trials: women, especially those who were marginalized and defied typical social and sexual norms, were persecuted under the guise of conspiring with the devil and inflicting curses upon their neighbors.
Each female character portrays a different form of historical oppression based on gender.
The play opens with Alice, played by Rae Wohl ’13, having sex with a mysterious man.
When they finish they discuss sins and the devil, and Alice begs the man to take her and her son, who has no father, to England with him. He responds by calling her a whore and states he’d have no reason to take a whore with him to England. When she refutes, “I’m not that,” he responds “What are you then? What name would you put to yourself? You’re not a wife or a widow. You’re not a virgin. Tell me a name for what you are.”
His response reveals women have been viewed as connected and defined by their relationship to men, in this case a husband, and by their sexuality, which was to be muted and unexpressed, especially outside of a marriage. Lacking a husband or virginity put a woman in an increasingly dangerous position to be labeled a whore, a beggar, or a witch.
The additional female characters accused of witchcraft portray the inferior role women had in society. Alice’s mother, Joan, is the elderly widow going through menopause, the process and effects of which no one talks about, leaving her feeling lost and unwanted.
Susan, played by Erin Moyer ’16, is Alice’s married friend who finds herself pregnant again and fears the pain of childbirth, losing more children to miscarriages, and having more children. Her situation of reconciling her own desires with the duties of a married mother emplify a typical predicament many women faced during this time and throughout history.
Ellen, played by Margaret Wilson ’14, is the cunning woman facing persecution from an advancing medical profession attempting to eliminate traditional methods of healing (think of how midwives were condemned during the late 19th and early 20th century as the practice of obstetrics advanced).
Betty, one of the female characters not accused of witchcraft, is a woman saddled with an arranged marriage to a man she has no wish to marry. When she continually expresses her aversion to marriage she is accused of hysteria, a common diagnosis of women who expressed sexual desire, nervousness, irritability — essentially anything women do that causes trouble for the men and family around her. To solve this problem, Betty faced a common remedy: a doctor tied her to a chair and “purged her” by puncturing her arms in a process called bleeding.
Aesthetically, the play is an unconventional production. First the audience joins the actors on the stage; chairs are set up on either side and are divided by multiple ropes hanging from the ceiling. The play uses very few props and the only set consists of the descending ropes, which shield the actors from the audience. The ropes, accompanied by three singers from Sweet Ophelia, provide the perfect backdrop for this drama. The three members of Sweet Ophelia provided the perfect brief break from the intensity of the scenes. The songs help to illustrate and act as a means to summarize the meaning of the scenes. The singers were Charlie Wynn ’16, Faith Engstrom ’15, and Larissa Szyszka ’14.
Vinegar Tom is a unique play in that it does not use big set designs or have over-the-top costumes. It is through a simplicity in set design and empathetic, passionate performances that the words and the message of the play is more powerful and has more of an impact.
I had the pleasure of reading the play before viewing it, and Sherman captured the essence of the words of the play and did a fabulous job. This play is meant to shock the audience; it is not a comedy despite the occasional dry joke. It was shocking and unnerving how graphic some of the scenes were. It is hard to remember that it is just a play. The actors were captivating, and although the play says there are no witches, there was some kind of enchantment at work.
Both Vinegar Tom’s content and aesthetics congeal to present a chilling tale of oppression.