You won’t find any broomsticks, boiling cauldrons, or burning stakes in Jen Silverman’s “Witch.” The Huntington Theatre Company production, beginning performances at the Calderwood Pavilion this weekend, isn’t about the Salem witch trials or the area’s centuries-long fascination with the occult, cautions director Rebecca Bradshaw. “[It’s] about a strong, independent woman asking for more from the society around her, and she gets ostracized for that.”
Indeed, the sorceress of the title, Elizabeth Sawyer (Lyndsay Allyn Cox), isn’t a witch at all, though her 17th-century community believes she’s one. Instead, it’s a different supernatural entity, Satan, who provides the play’s jumping-off point. And that enduring literary and cultural myth — the deal with the devil, the Faustian bargain — is the pivot around which the play revolves.
“It’s an archetypal way of getting people to think about what they really desire and what they’re willing to sacrifice for what they desire,” says Silverman, whose play “The Roommate” was seen at Lyric Stage Company in 2018. “What do you desperately want, what will you do for it, and what won’t you do for it? That’s inherently dramatic and a really compelling question.”
While the dark comedy, which runs through Nov. 14, unfolds in the 17th century with period sets and costumes, it employs a contemporary vernacular and lively wit to tell its story of Elizabeth, an unmarried woman. Living as an outcast in the woods outside a small village, she’s side-eyed by the locals who believe she’s a witch and has brought a blight on their town. Then one day, Scratch (Michael Underhill), a devil in the guise of a traveling salesman, appears on some of the villagers’ doorsteps with a proposition to make their deepest desires and dreams come true in exchange for their souls. When he learns about Elizabeth, he’s certain she’ll take him up on his proposal and seek vengeance on those who’ve spurned her. But she proves steadfast in resisting his entreaties — and his considerable charms — and he becomes increasingly captivated by her.
“When you’ve been misused and abused, you build up this tough exterior, but as the play evolves you see that she’s just as human as anybody else,” Cox says. “Elizabeth talks about people not hearing her or misinterpreting what she says. And as a Black woman who has a lot to say, I definitely feel like that happens to me. I understand on a visceral level how that feels to be perceived as something other than you are.”
While Elizabeth proves a tough nut to crack, Scratch finds it easier to seduce the denizens of a nearby castle overseen by a land-owning nobleman, Sir Arthur Banks (Barzin Akhavan). There’s his sensitive, Morris-dancing son, Cuddy (Nick Sulfaro); ambitious peasant farmer Frank (Javier David Padilla), who’s insinuated his way into Sir Arthur’s good graces and hopes he can worm his way into an inheritance too; and the put-upon servant Winnifred (Gina Fonseca), who has a radioactive secret of her own.
Still, Scratch is determined to win over the resistant Elizabeth. “She questions everything he does, and Scratch short-circuits a little bit and is like, ‘Oh, this is someone who’s making this a challenge.’ That’s exciting!” Bradshaw says. “[Elizabeth] asks questions instead of demanding things, and I’ve been finding so much power in that idea. If you don’t have societal or hierarchical power, questioning the systems above you can actually make those in power question it themselves.”
Their fascination with each other turns into friendship and maybe something more. “I think they see each other in a way that no one else has,” Cox says. “So they start to form a bond that’s probably deeper than either of them expected.”
Over at the castle, the characters struggle with the constraints of their expected roles in 17th-century society, their relationship to status and power, and what they must hide about their true selves.
The play uses “The Witch of Edmonton,” a 1621 Jacobean drama that has always haunted Silverman, as a “springboard.” She argues that the original work “masquerades” as one of the moralistic fables from the time that warned audiences about the dangers of witches, but she found herself drawn to its complexity and “subversiveness.”
“It makes the witch immensely relatable! For a play of that time, it’s sort of shocking,” she says. “[It] keeps telling you these are the good upstanding citizens of Edmonton who are threatened by a witch, but then you see them doing horrible things to each other. And that idea really stuck with me — a play whose moral questions are built into its fabric.”
The writing of “Witch” really “cracked open” for Silverman when she realized that her play is as much about the community as it is about the witch and the devil. “Is it possible for us to transform our systems, our institutions, ourselves? Or is meaningful change impossible given that our imaginations are limited by what we know? In which case, is there an argument to destroy it all and start over? But what does burning it down mean? What does that look like? Those are the kinds of questions I was grappling with.”
In a play posing such thorny questions, Silverman says, it was pivotal to mine the black humor in the story. “And there’s a lot of dark comedy when we start asking questions about who we are in society,” Silverman says.
While “Witch” may be laden with social satire, acerbic humor, and crackling dialogue, deep down it explores our vacillations between hope and despair. And in a world deeply scarred by the COVID pandemic, Silverman is unsure how the play will land for audiences in the current moment.
“But whether you fall on the side of hope or the side of despair, the play is asking you: Can you imagine a future for yourself, your community, your society that doesn’t repeat its old mistakes?” she says. “How can we surprise ourselves with what we are able to imagine? Yes, we’re programmed in certain ways by the cultures and societies that raise us, but sometimes we are capable of truly revolutionary acts of imagination.”
Play by Jen Silverman. Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company. At Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, Oct. 15-Nov. 14. Tickets from $25. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org