‘Vinegar Tom’ captivates Playhouse audience

Written By Kaisha Jantsch, For The Globe

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Caryl Churchill’s 1976 feminist retelling of England’s 17th century witch hunts, Vinegar Tom, debuted at Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse, Friday and the production, while slightly flawed, proves nothing short of impressive.

The play, which features a band that, in this making, is led by three strong female vocalists (Liron Blumenthal, Elise Dorsey, and Caroline Bachman), tells the story of five women: Alice (Ciera Harding), a struggling single mother who maintains the company of many men she has no desire to marry; Alice’s mother, Joan (Markia Nicole Smith), an unmarried, poor, and aging woman who once lived a life like her daughter’s; Alice’s best friend, Susan (Allison Svagdis), an exhausted mother of three, struggling with motherhood, who continues to get pregnant by her husband, despite her objections and several miscarriages; Betty (Caroline Travers), a young runaway fighting against an arranged marriage; and Ellen (Jamie Rafacz), a cunning woman and herbalist who provides “charms,” primarily to women, some of which prevent and terminate pregnancy.

These women exist outside of the patriarchal norm. Thus, when a series of unfortunate events befalls Jack (Daniel Murphy) and Margery (Bridget Murphy), a once-prosperous and seemingly pious couple, two of these women, Alice and Joan, get blamed. Both women cursed or wished damnation upon the couple at some point—Joan when Margery refused to lend her yeast, and Alice, when she refused Jack, a married man, sex. These damnations come to mind when Jack becomes impotent, Margery’s butter won’t make, and their cattle begin dying.

To determine that the mother and daughter are witches, Margery boils her own urine, creating a foul odor that brings Joan, her neighbor, to inquire about the smell. As the smell was meant to draw witches, this inquiry proves, to Margery, Joan’s association with the devil. Alice’s association is solidified when Jack goes to her demanding his penis back, which he is convinced is missing and that Alice has taken. Alice is confused by his demand and unable to return what she doesn’t have. Jack rapes her, and his ability to perform when previously unable to confirms, to Jack, that she, too, is a witch.

Once certain that Joan and Alice are witches who have cast spells upon them, Jack and Margery hire an expert witch hunter, Packer (Micah Stanek), and his assistant, Goody (Mary Shay McWeeney), to try and persecute the women.

A feminist’s Crucible, Vinegar Tom reflects upon the present through a tale of the past and shows contemporary attitudes toward women as medieval, with many individuals continuing to cast unconventional and untraditional females as witches. Its author sees the age-old impulse to blame women for the downfall of society and for male impotence and infidelity and misfortune, to free men and their unwavering wives from the weight of their own shortcomings and failures, as active in her modern world.

In Harding’s portrayal of Alice, she shines in playing a convincing lover in her exchanges with a character identified only as, “man,” with a crooked smile always playing, flirtatiously at her lips, and easy friend to Susan, casually gossiping about sex, marriage and children, as if unwinding with a cup of coffee on a Sunday afternoon.

Ciera Murphy, as Margery, makes thoughtful decisions and acts as an effective antagonist to Joan and Alice. In an exchange with the cunning woman who has advised Margery and Jack to look into a piece of glass she’s given them to see if the face of a witch appears, Margery claims that she sees Joan in the glass and, with her husband hesitating to back her up she exclaims, “It’s Mother Nokes [(Joan)], isn’t it Jack?” With eyes wide, she nods to him, shaking her head ever-so-subtly “yes,” so as to lead him to the correct conclusion. However, she struggles, at times with her Irish accent, as do many in the cast, over- or under-emphasizing it occasionally.

Daniel Murphy, as Jack, has the most difficult time finding this dialectic balance. His accent is incredibly thick and lacks diction, bordering almost on cockney—dropping endings and hard consonant sounds from words. Though he gives an admirable, passionate and humorous performance, playing his character as a hyper-masculine dummy by barreling across the stage and speaking with deep, open tones, his dialogue often gets lost and muddies the plot. However, Travers, as Betty, always brings it back.

While Betty is not a lead in the play, Travers’ performance as her certainly has a feel of primacy. Her character, diagnosed with hysteria, is sent to the doctor to be bled. In this scene, she is tied to a chair. She asks repeatedly and with earnest why she is tied. She almost hyperventilates as the doctor readies his knife, tearing through her lines at ever-increasing speeds, her voice filled with terror, while she fumbles with her feet nervously until he cuts her. As the doctor pulls a lengthening red string of yarn from her arm, signifying the bleeding, she shakes and cries, softening her volume to a whimper as her character loses consciousness. For something so difficult to watch, viewers will struggle to tear their eyes away.

The opening night performance had a few hiccups, particularly with some on-stage confusion at the end, but these small problems don’t mar an otherwise well-done production of Vinegar Tom that screams Churchill’s feminism. It’s well-worth your time and money.

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