What is a witch? A woman who is just a bit too attractive? A bit too ugly? A bit too handy with spells and magic? In “Vinegar Tom,” playing at the Marquis Gallery Theatre through March 21, playwright Caryl Churchill tackles this question and adds to it the puzzle of why people have persecuted suspected witches through the ages.

By the time she finishes, the question evolves into why anybody persecutes anybody.

The plot of the play is straightforward enough: In some indefinite village at some indefinite time in what may be Elizabethan England, three women--one young, one mature and one old--are threatened with hanging for witchcraft.

While the story is simple, the construction is not. Churchill uses musical numbers sandwiched occasionally in between a series of 20 vignettes, in the style of a Greek chorus, to comment on the action. Her lyrics have the feminist foresight of a 20th-Century sensibility, which at times can be disconcerting, but on the whole they do a masterful job of enriching the play.


The three persecuted women are Joan, Alice and Betty. Joan is a poor, often drunk old widow who begs for a cake of yeast one time too many from her neighbor, Margery.

When Margery refuses, Joan curses her. Later, when Margery’s head hurts and her cows die and her husband, Jack, won’t make love to her, she blames Joan’s curse. She persuades Jack that Joan is a witch and that the only way to get rid of their troubles is to get rid of her.

The simplicity of the solution appeals to Jack. In fact, it is a swift jump from seeing Joan as a witch to thinking of her attractive daughter, Alice, who won’t sleep with him, as a witch, too. Why not get rid of both pests with the same noose?

Betty is a young girl who has a suitor but does not want to get married. She is diagnosed as sick and sent to a doctor, to be bled until she gets well. At one point, she is warned that “it’s not safe to grow up strange.” When a professional witch hunter comes to town, the pressure to marry increases.


The cast works well together. Paty Sipes plays Alice as a fighter. Her intelligence threatens like steel below the surface. Helen Reed Lehman does a fine job as Joan, deftly capturing the bewilderment of a lonely old woman with a tenuous grasp on reality being credited with powers she can’t even comprehend.

Rosemary Tyrrell makes the virtuous Margery not only believable but recognizable. This truly is a person who believes she is doing good by turning in her neighbors.

The toughest role, however, is the multiple male role played by Steven Soden. Beginning as Alice’s one-night stand who identifies himself mockingly as the devil, and then becoming the doctor who bleeds Betty and the witch hunter who torments Joan and Alice, Soden plays a symbol of man persecuting woman more than he does any one character. The more these characters sound alike, the more powerful the symbol is. Unfortunately, Soden seems to fall into the trap of trying to make each character new.

The generally fine direction by Jennifer Myers Johnson manages to bring out the humor in the show, quite essential when you consider how heavy this message-laden play could be.

The place where Johnson makes a bold difference, though, is in the musical numbers. The original play had music more in keeping with the setting and time of this English play. Johnson has rather boldly taken the liberty of giving Churchill’s lyrics a contemporary sound by using music by the musical director, Delores Fisher. Fisher’s melodic and sometimes haunting arrangements sport an assortment of styles that Johnson characterizes as “the music of social protest: punk, jazz, blues and folk.” Near the end, there is even a bit of vaudeville, complete with top hats and canes.

While this grab bag of harmonies does break the English mood (not to mention, occasionally, the mood of the play), most of the numbers, with the exception of one disconcertingly funny punk piece, pay off by weaving in a peculiarly American feeling.

Fisher also provides a rousing piano accompaniment to the sweetly resonant voice of Whitney Marlette, who sings most of the songs.

J.S. Myers’ costumes, like Jim Benton’s set design, set the mood with a minimum of fuss. The lights by George Edwards and Ian Hendrie handle the close to 30 blackouts with skill.


“Vinegar Tom” has some strong messages, and Johnson and her spirited cast do justice to them. To their credit, they manage to explore the feminist ideas in the show without losing sight of the still larger story of how good people can rationalize destroying others. That is not limited to sex discrimination--it demonstrates a human tendency to look for scapegoats that, unfortunately, crosses all boundaries.

“VINEGAR TOM” By Caryl Churchill. Director is Jennifer Myers Johnson. Original music, arrangements, musical direction and accompaniment by Delores Fisher. Choreography by Whitney Marlette and Jennifer Johnson. Set design by Jim Benton. Costumes by J.S. Myers. Lights by George Edwards and Ian Hendrie. With Jane Hopf, Jena Lynn Kirsch, Helen Reed Lehman, Whitney Marlette, Kari Nyhammer, Paty Sipes, Betty Matthews, Rosemary Tyrrell, James B. Johnson and Steven Soden. At 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday through March 21. At the Marquis Gallery Theatre, 3717 India St., San Diego.