Sometimes a work for the stage comes along that, whether you like the play or not, simply churns you up. Waking up the morning after seeing Frank Theatre's production of Vinegar Tom, set during 17th-century English witch hunts, a roiling pool of impressions came to mind: the constraints of society's conventions, the razor-sharp power of sex, the need for song and story to get us through it all, and, in the end, the impossibility of finding our way through the mazes we all create for ourselves.
Not that playwright Caryl Churchill specifically meant to evoke all these broad horizons. When she wrote the play in the 1970s, the message was explicitly feminist. In the first scene, for instance, when the young Alice (Emily Gunyou Halaas) screws an unnamed guy (Christopher Kehoe) in the great outdoors, he's framed as the devil. It doesn't hurt the case, admittedly, when he leaves her without even revealing his name.
What follows is a series of scenes that evokes emotion while skirting the edges of a conventional narrative arc. Director Wendy Knox is an audience ally here, and she brings a strong sense of purpose to what could have come across as fragmentary or scattershot. (Churchill is a solid veteran playwright, but this piece feels like a snapshot of a moment that needs ushering into the present, a task for which Knox is amply capable.)
Frank Theatre at the Ritz Theater through October 5
In short, Alice is stuck with her widowed mother, Joan (Dona Werner Freeman), who is freed from her late husband's beatings but poor as dirt. Next door in their claustrophobic village are the married Jack (Patrick Bailey, looking as though he's about to burst a blood vessel) and Margery (Virginia Burke), who are in such wedded bliss that they churn butter as if they were plunging a blade into the chest of their most despised enemy.
Throw in Alice's pal Susan (Katrina Hawley), saddled with offspring and hoping to turn off the heat on the bun currently in her oven (the abortion issue isn't exclusive to our time, after all), and you get the overall impression that Churchill did not have a rosy view of marriage and family.
Subtexts abound, such as when Jack convinces himself that his (fleshly) scepter has lost its power due to Alice's hex appeal. The play's detour into the supernatural reaches a zenith with the arrival of Packer (Kehoe again, making the transition from the U of M stage to professional theater), who bases his success as a witch hunter on a series of tautologies (which happen to include getting women spread-legged before him and cutting them with a knife).
This was originally a semi-musical (the songs are contemporary interludes, rather than woven into the story), and Knox wisely figures that this update requires some new tunes. Annie Ennking and Marya Hart provide caustic, knowing numbers, delivered by the cast. The songs' contemporary tone brings us out of the weird past to the equally weird present, driving home the point that human interaction has always been a mix of the commonplace and mythic, our dissatisfaction equally divided between the person next to us and the forces in the sky.
Vinegar Tom never allows its audience to settle comfortably into a single understanding of what the play represents, or intends, and by the end that seems quite all right. It depicts a world in which options and choices are sealed away and cauterized, and in response all sorts of voodoo and witchery arise (of both the authentic and imaginary varieties). By the time poor Joan is making her enthusiastic confession, the line between truth and fantasy is well and truly blurred. You feel messy, a bit confused, and breathless, much like anyone forced to make her way through a society based on repression and lies.