Witch hunting and drama in ‘Vinegar Tom’

by David Dixon

Acting out of the norm is potentially fatal in “Vinegar Tom.” | Courtesy of Zwink Photography
Acting out of the norm is potentially fatal in “Vinegar Tom.” | Courtesy of Zwink Photography

“Vinegar Tom” is the third show in a row at San Diego State to deal with societal problems. “Squawk” addressed human conflicts while “Zanna Don’t! A Musical Fairy Tale” tackled the issue of homophobia. “Vinegar Tom,” the most serious of the three, revolves around a horrifying time when innocent citizens were accused of witchcraft.

Primarily set in Somerset, England in 1664, this ensemble play is far more unconventional than the following synopsis would suggest. Alice (Rachel Hoey) wants to be an independent woman in a time when inequality was a way of life. Her mom, Joan (Susan Jordan-DeLeon), is the hunchbacked town “nut;” a person whose oddness causes the townspeople to label her crazy. After the two find themselves in some shocking incidents with their neighbors, Jack (Jarret Addleman) and Margery (Monique Hanson), the couple begins to believe Alice and Joan might be witches.

From this description, it sounds like “Vinegar Tom” could be a classic tragedy similar to “The Crucible.” However, Caryl Churchill’s 1976 script takes chances to make her work appeal to a new generation. What starts as an intellectually stimulating night of entertainment soon becomes a well-crafted musical drama.

There are several musical sequences throughout the production, accompanied by singers and composer / musical director / keyboardist Thomas Hodges. These modern numbers are supposed to bring up problems in the 15th century while making them still relevant.

Though the songs could have been overly preachy, Hodges’ music, along with Churchill’s lyrics, are thought-provoking and at times even addicting. Hopefully Hodges will release a CD with the tunes; yes, they are that powerful.

Another notable aspect of Churchill’s writing is the use of speeches in the second act. A particular example of this is a soliloquy from Goody (Megan McGrory) an assistant to a witch hunter, Packer (Shane Allen). Through this spooky dialogue, the audience enters the gruesome mind of a woman in the disturbing profession, and at the same time, gives viewers an idea as to why some decided to pursue witch hunting as a career.

Despite the fact that “Vinegar Tom” is more about subject matter than character development, the acting is incredible. Hoey is excellent in depicting a young adult trying to be different than the typical female from the time period.

The two invaluable actresses who practically steal “Vinegar Tom” and refuse to turn it in to the authorities are DeLeon and Sunny Smith. With her committed physical movement along with her dark comedic timing, DeLeon works wonders as an unfortunate outcast. Smith, who also delivered a memorable performance in “Doubt: A Parable” last semester, plays a practitioner of the healing arts, who may or may not be a witch. Smith is empathetic, especially in her moving moments with Betty (Emily Zobel), a girl she starts a friendship with.

Smith and DeLeon stand out so much partly because of what they are able to accomplish during some of the final scenes of “Vinegar Tom.” Without spoiling anything, it is safe to say the performers take part in a sudden transition from sad tragedy to biting satire, which ultimately allows them to show off their amazing versatility. It is also when Churchill takes her most dangerous risk, and with Peter Larlham’s assured direction, it pays off.

While some might be initially put off by its offbeat approach to storytelling, “Vinegar Tom” turns out to be a wonderful way to end the season of plays and musicals. Just remember to bring an open mind when entering the Experimental Theatre.

Tickets and information about “Vinegar Tom” can be found at theatre.sdsu.edu.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email