‘Nobody sings about it, but it happens all the time” goes the refrain of a song in Caryl Churchill’s “Vinegar Tom.” What happens all the time in her chilling 1976 play is the persecution, and execution, of “witches.” But Churchill does sing about it, in ditties with titles like “Something to Burn” and “Evil Women,” in the course of exposing the misogyny and hypocrisy of the 17th century and also the 20th. It’s a dark work, and it gets a very dark production from Whistler in the Dark in the Boston Center for the Arts’ Rehearsal Hall A.
The title character of “Vinegar Tom” is a black cat who never appears — which is appropriate for what the company calls “A play about witches, with no witches in it.” The setting is a village in 17th-century England, but Churchill asks that the seven songs she wrote be sung by figures in modern dress. Her lyrics pull no punches: “If you float you’re a witch. . . . If you sink, you’re dead anyway.” For this production, the songs were composed by Molly Allis, Juliet Olivier, and Veronica Barron; they’re performed by Barron and Tony Leva, with backup from some of the actors. There’s nothing very interesting about the spare music or Barron’s vocal delivery, but the message does register.
Churchill could have titled her play “It All Started With Eve,” since at the end Kramer and Sprenger, authors of the popular 15th-century tome “Malleus Maleficarum” (“The Hammer of Witches”), appear to inform us, “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in woman insatiable.” If tenant farmer Jack’s manhood withers, or his wife Margery’s butter won’t come, it must be the fault of their neighbor, the widow Joan. If Susan loses her baby, midwife Ellen can be held responsible. And even without racks and thumbscrews at their disposal, witch-finders Packer and Goody will finger the culprits. It’s hard to defend yourself from the crime of being a woman.
Whistler associate artistic director Mac Young helms this production, and he also designed the set, which is the wooden skeleton of a house with a large attic and sparely furnished with a single three-legged stool. Props, like the bowl Joan borrowed from Margery and the apple Jack gives Joan’s nubile daughter, Alice, are mimed; costumes are barely suggested, the woman in simple white cotton dresses, the men in open vests.
There’s nothing suggested about Young’s direction, however. This “Vinegar Tom” is ferociously conceived and excellently acted, right down to the dialect accents. John Greene’s Jack is a whiner and a lech (he keeps hitting on Alice); Caroline Price’s pickle-faced Margery is jittery and joyless. David Anderson is a hideously prurient, sanctimonious Packer, and at that he’s less horrifying than Melissa Barker as his assistant Goody, who’s “proud to work with a great professional.”
Their victims are all sympathetic — perhaps too much so. Karin Webb seems very mild-mannered for cranky Joan and looks more like Alice’s sister than her mother. Becca A. Lewis is a vivacious, good-natured Alice; Jennifer Reddish brings a welcome ambivalence to Susan; Obehei Janice is calm and sagacious as “cunning” Ellen. Landowner’s daughter Betty (a wonderful Melis Akers, all bright eyes and bloom) isn’t accused of being a witch, but she is considered “sick” because she won’t marry a man she doesn’t love.
It’s true that Churchill doesn’t leave much gray area, but Whistler’s black-and-white divide between villains and victims makes for a testing two-hour (with no intermission) show. And when the hanging of Joan and Ellen has been depicted in such graphic, convulsive detail, the envoi from Kramer and Sprenger — portrayed with cheeky satire by Webb and Janice, still hanging — comes off as heavy-handed and redundant. Still, Churchill was looking to hit a nerve, and Whistler does just that.