Witchy Women – Rarely Done VINEGAR TOM at Allen’s Lane

by Ellen Wilson Dilks

Evil Women
Is that what you want?
Is that what you want to see?
On the movie screen
Of your wet dream
Evil Women

Amanda Bernhardt and Brian D. Ratcliffe in a scene from Allens Lane Theater's VINEGAR TOM.

I have not been to Allens Lane for a number of years and it was nice to be a part of their unusual ambiance: the theatre is set up cabaret style and the audience is encouraged to arrive well before curtain and have dinner at one of the tables prior to the start of the performance.  Their website even lists a menu of dishes patrons can pre-order and have their meal waiting for them—at very reasonable prices. My companion and I opted to eat at home, but the smells of the meals around us when we arrived were delicious. Located between McCallum and Greene, Allens Lane is a “full-service” Arts Center.   There is an art gallery and a dance studio on the first floor, and classes are offered year round.  Parking is free and public transportation is nearby.

Caryl Churchill is a popular feminist playwright from England, whose works have been produced all over the world. Other plays include Cloud Nine, Top Girls, Fen and Serious Money.  She has received three OBIE Awards for her work and is generally acknowledged as one of the leading playwrights in the English language. VINEGAR TOM was written in 1976 to examine gender and power relationships through the lens of 17th century witchcraft trials in England. [Who knew that happened in England, too?!]

There are obvious comparisons to Miller’s CRUCIBLE, but Churchill’s piece attempts to take a comedic approach to the topic—at times. The play tells the story of Alice and her mother Joan, two very poor women with no husbands who are scraping out an existence in a rural English village in the mid 1600s. The two are accused of witchcraft after some mishaps at their neighbor’s farm. The wife accuses Joan’s cat, Vinegar Tom, of being the “familiar”.  Soon the local old woman who practices the healing arts, Ellen, is accused; as is Alice’s friend Susan—after it is discovered she used a potion from Ellen to end an unwanted pregnancy.  The final victim is Betty, daughter of a local family more well-off than the rest.  Betty is considered crazy because she does not wish to marry. Finally a renowned witch hunter named Packer arrives and proceeds to try these women—in a most unusual way. He and his local supporter, known only as Goody, spend a great deal of time up the ladies skirts bleeding them. The character of Goody provides some much needed comedic tang to the whole proceeding. Interspersed throughout this long one-act are various songs—all of which have very explicit lyrics by Churchill and are meant to be performed in contemporary dress.  I’m not sure why…

Allens Lane’s company of actors is very talented, with standout performances given by Amanda Bernhardt as “Alice,” Megan Edelman as “Betty” and Lesley Berkowitz as “Goody”.  Solid work was also given by the rest of the ensemble: Kara Boland (Margery), Catherine Mary Moroney (Susan), Peter Zielinski (Jack), Brian D. Ratcliffe (Packer & multiple roles), Linda Minster (Ellen) and Janet Wasser (Joan).   But I’m not sure if the material was worthy of their efforts. Written at the height of the second Feminist Movement, Churchill is attempting to comment on too many things at once. I wasn’t sure if the message was about the oppressive religious attitudes and the poverty of the 1640s, the control men had over society (and still do), discrimination against those who are different or sexual repression.  And the musical interludes did nothing to enhance the experience for me. While performed wonderfully by the ensemble, Churchill’s lyrics were off-putting and preachy.

Amanda Bernhardt and Catherine Mary Moroney in a scene from VINEGAR TOM, running at Allens Lane Theater through December 3.

Director Josh Hitchens did an admirable job staging the piece on Allens Lane’s very wide, but very shallow, stage. He and assistant Kristina Langlais used the space well and paced the production nicely. An intriguing set and lighting design was provided by Ken Jordan; it was simple yet exceedingly effective. Amelia Williams’ costumes were appropriately 17th century, but a couple of the ladies had wardrobe malfunctions opening night—hopefully these will be resolved. The pre and post-performance music was wonderful, evoking just the right mood. Alas, the sound design is un-credited.

While I found much about the play confusing, I would encourage theatregoers to check the production out for themselves—and let me know your take on it.  I’d love to have a conversation with you all about it; maybe I missed something.

by Caryl Churchill

Directed by Josh Hitchens
November 18-December 3, 2011
Allens Lane Theater
601 West Allens Lane

Philadelphia, PA 19119
(215) 248-0546


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1 comment

Josh Hitchens November 21, 2011 - 2:49 pm

Dear Ellen, Thank you very much for your review of Vinegar Tom. To clarify since it wasn’t credited, I did the sound design. – Josh.


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