at Splinter Group Studio
Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom, first performed in 1976, is as much about the 70s women’s movement as it is about the witch-hunts of 17th-century England. The story centers on four women accused of witchcraft, but the actors intermittently step out of character to sing campy folk songs by John Shaw that have a sometimes comic, sometimes militant 70s tone.
The opening chorus is a mocking ode to women’s sexuality and the fear it inspires in men. A man and woman hump on another woman’s upraised leg, while upstage four women gyrate, singing, “A devil’s woman is never satisfied.” The effect is sexuality without feeling. In a women-only number the singers commiserate about things that are a natural part of female existence even if they’re still taboo in conversation: “I woke this morning, / There was blood on the sheet. / Nobody sings about it, / But it happens all the time.” The lyrics irritate, not because they’re so shocking, but because they’re so bad. The women also sing about their “cunts” and “tits”; the words may offend the politically correct, though Churchill was using them to declare women’s ownership of their bodies.
In Vinegar Tom, as in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, the witch-hunt illustrates the way a group of people can be made scapegoats. But Churchill goes beyond metaphor to make the case that the witch-hunts were pointedly antiwoman by making the four characters accused of witchcraft in her story threatening to men. Alice, an unwed mother known for her promiscuity, is the unwitting center of Jack’s frustrated fantasies, and she and her mother are accused of putting a spell on him and his livestock. The midwife Ellen is targeted for giving out abortion medicines, along with Susan, a weary wife and mother who has an abortion. A fifth woman, Betty, fears she’ll be attacked for refusing to marry the man chosen for her. Churchill’s well-made point is that women, as child bearers and objects of sexual desire, have power that some men want to snuff out because they can’t control it.
But what could have been moving drama and good allegory is weakened by Churchill’s sledgehammer tactics. When Alice and her lover wrestle on the floor in the first scene, his “sweet” talk is filled with allusions to the devil, sin, and witches. Since it’s unlikely a seducer would risk planting thoughts of remorse in his lover’s mind, we can surmise that Churchill’s using him to set out themes that will be taken up later.
Director Christine Hartman and her cast share responsibility for the overdone moments. As Alice, Laurie Dawn is appropriately defiant, but her shrillness isn’t called for until the final interrogation scenes. Other moments are simply confusing. When Betty (Jo Marie Schiro) shows up at her neighbor’s house in a nightgown, it’s hard to tell if she’s crazy or just eccentric. Later when she turns to the midwife (Mary Anne Bowman) for advice, Bowman’s long, soulful looks suggest there’s a special bond between them–but is it that of mother to daughter or lover to lover?
In contrast, the subdued performances of Louise Bylicki as Jack’s wife Margery and Mary Margaret McCloud as Susan prove you don’t have to laugh diabolically to portray malice or sob hysterically to show deeply felt grief. Other actors also have good moments. Steve Williford, who fumbled a few lines as Alice’s lover in the first scene on opening night, exhibited more confidence as the interrogator, colorfully depicting him as a self-righteous con man. Bowman is best in the few really good musical numbers: lampooning in one a fulfilled housewife and in another the theologians who once asserted that women are more carnal than men and therefore more susceptible to the devil.
The few elements of the set–a gallows and a butter churn–remain while the players make the transition from witch-hunt to musical interlude by changing from simple period costumes to modern dress. Churchill’s message is loud and clear: women are still persecuted today. Her didacticism reduces the players, with their awkward knee-slapping and forced jolliness, to delivering a singing telegram.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Ebright.