She’s led an impressive life of achievement and artistic accomplishment with a unique style that blends traditional story-telling with new ways of shaping plays, as she’s shown in works such as Cloud Nine and Top Girls among many, many others.
Saint Louis University currently is staging a magnificent adaptation of Vinegar Tom, which Churchill wrote in 1976. The title character is a mangy cat belonging to Joan, an impoverished widow who lives with her free-spirited daughter Alice in rural England in the 17th century. Churchill purposefully moves the action of the story between that setting and modern day, where (in SLU’s case) an a cappella choir of six students sings her pointed lyrics to underscore the ongoing fight of women for equal rights in male-dominated societies.
Vinegar Tom is considered a “familiar spirit” sent forth by a witch to wreak havoc on her enemies. Joan often talks to her neighbor Margery on walks to and from her tiny home. When Margery’s personal situation deteriorates, however, she and her husband Jack pin the blame of their misfortunes on the derided Joan, who is accused of killing their cows, affecting Jack’s ‘private part’ and curdling their butter.
Jack is brutishly indifferent to his wife until his misfortunes. He accuses Alice of conspiring against him, since he fathered her child and she no longer wants him around. With nary a shred of evidence, Jack and Margery are able to convene a witches’ trial led by a witch-detector, Mister Packer, a crusade that also ensnares Alice’s fearful friend Susan with gruesome results.
Churchill employs a Brechtian device by having a modern-day musical troupe recite her lyrics. This serves better as a theatrical element than do the words themselves, which are rather trite and repetitive, even when given the support of original music composed and arranged by student Kristin McGuire.
The primary setting of rural England, though, offers a chilling and absorbing locale for her searing, one-act drama. It clinically conveys how hysteria and the will of the majority historically as well as currently can have a brutal impact on individuals who are viewed as different and therefore threatening to the establishment.
Tom Martin’s direction is taut and provocative throughout, as he carefully culls amazing performances from his youthful cast. The entire production is splendid, including the rough-hewn set designed by Jim Burwinkel that features movable cloth ‘doors’ and a looming hangman’s gallows in the background. Scott Schoonover’s lighting is stark and savage to match the mood of the setting. Lou Bird’s costumes show us the splendor of the witch-hunter’s lavish clothing in contrast to the shabby togs of the working class, while Nancy Bell instructs the players expertly as their dialect and vocal coach. The makeup design that makes Alyssa Ward as Joan look haggard and beaten down is another note of excellence.
Ward is wonderful as Joan, a lonely outsider whose miserable life is made exponentially worse by the ignorance of her neighbors. Taylor Steward splendidly conveys the desperations of Joan’s daughter, Alice, and Gabrielle Greer is very good as the timid Susan. Gregory Cuellar is powerful as the nasty farmer Jack, who bullies his way through life, while Katy Keating is very good as his cowering wife Margery. Kara McLaughlin, Elizabeth Meinders, Kyle Powell, Ryan Natalino, Joseph Denk and Tyler Linke also capably contribute.
A bit with Keating and Meinders as a pair of 20th century male psychologists is pointed but goofy, another of Churchill’s asides that defy conventional theatrical parameters. On the whole, though, Vinegar Tom is given the dazzling rendition it deserves under Martin’s sage and insightful direction, and a powerful theatrical treat.