by Lindsay Howard
“Nobody sings about it, but it happens all the time.” The lyrics of the opening song of Vinegar Tom by Caryl Churchill speak to an array of experiences many women have faced in their lives. Vinegar Tom is a tale of power and gender told from the perspective of witch trials in 17th century England, filled with moments of forceful strength and painful vulnerability. The University of Alabama’s Department of Theatre and Dance has taken on the task of bringing this timely story of “evil women” to the stage, with the direction of Annie Levy and acting skills of UA undergraduate and graduate actors.
The show follows Alice and her world, including her mother, best friend, and lovers. Vinegar Tom attempts to point out the painful realization that there are many similarities between the treatment of 17th century women and women in 2018. All told in one act, Vinegar Tom opens to Alice having just had a “one night stand,” something that did not occur regularly by any respectable woman. Slowly it is revealed that Alice is not the average woman of the time. She has a child out of wedlock, she sleeps around, and she doesn’t take things as easily as everyone else around her. We then meet Betty, an adolescent girl who wishes for nothing more than to not be married. In an act of discipline, her parents lock her up and send her for regular “treatments,” (most often bleeding) to show her that marriage is the right way for a woman. Alice’s best friend Susan comes into the picture next, a gal that follows the “right way” of things by having a husband and children. Susan begins to experience an internal struggle between what she feels and what she knows as she encounters an unwanted pregnancy. All of these women make visits to the “cunning woman,” (or as the cast and crew like to call her, the original gynecologist), who provides charms, herbs, and potions to anyone brave enough to face the social consequences of visiting her. The women in the show all have something in common; they are all fighters.
The storytelling is aided by the help of eight singers, set in present day, who sing in between scenes and react to the events of the play as they unfold. Director Annie Levy brought in award winning composer Erato Kremmyda to write the music in collaboration with the students. The singers move the story along with their reactions to what is happening on stage and songs relating to the moment. They sing of what is expected of women, the woes of women, and describe what it is to be an “evil woman.”
I asked director Annie Levy about her take on the play, why she chose it, and why it is relevant today. Levy explains that the work of Churchill is vital to the world, “not only because of what she takes on through her plays (the content), but also the way she tells these stories (the structure).” When asked how this relates to the social climate regarding women today, she says, “Besides the fact that, in our society, women still stop mattering as they get older? Besides the fact that, in our scientific research, women’s bodies are understood to be faulty male bodies? Besides the fact that, for so long, earning money to support ourselves was regarded with suspicion?” Vinegar Tom speaks to the women of 17th century England, yes, but it also speaks to the women of modern times all too closely. During the final scene of the show, the reasons that women are more susceptible to witchcraft than men are addressed by Kramer and Sprenger, “Professors of Theology.” (Interestingly, these roles are played by women dressed as men). The pair cite women being “more credulous,” “more impressionable,” “having slippery tongues,” “feebler in body and mind,” being of a “different” intellect than men, and lastly, “more carnal than a man.” Levy points out that “these are all arguments that are continually made against women.” Whether that is from being a gossip, stupid, or weak. Vinegar Tom is incredibly valuable, validating women of the 17th century and the women of today. When asked how this show is a powerful statement to women today, Levy replied with “Vinegar Tom attempts to speak truth and power and in doing so, taking some of the lost power back. Women in 2018 are doing the same thing.”
Vinegar Tom runs February 13-17 at 7:30 PM and February 18 at 2:00 PM in the Gallaway Theatre, located in Rowand-Johnson Hall. Tickets are $14 for students and children, $17 for seniors, UA faculty and staff, and $20 for adults and can be bought online at ua.tix.com or in the box office in the lobby of Rowand-Johnson Hall.