'Vinegar Tom' Explores Fear, Poverty and Desire to Control the Uncontrollable

  • Vinegar Tom rehearsal Students Kristi Thomson '14 and Jennie Robbins '13 rehearse for "Vinegar Tom," which will be performed Oct. 25-28 at the Roschel Performing Arts Center. (Photo by Jon Foley Sherman. Set and lighting by John Whiting. Costumes by Virginia West).

Audiences attending a play about witches opening Oct. 25 at Franklin & Marshall College might feel a particular resonance between its themes and the current political season.

The Department of Theatre, Dance and Film will present "Vinegar Tom" Thursday, Oct. 25, through Sunday, Oct. 28, in the Roschel Performing Arts Center. According to the playwright, Caryl Churchill, it is "a play about witches with no witches in it," and director Jon Foley Sherman hopes that it will offer the opportunity for the audience to reflect on many of the issues facing voters in the Nov. 6 election.

Originally created in association with a feminist theater company in 1976, the play tells the story of how the women in a 17th-century English village manage the demands put upon them by their social and natural environments. As they try to clarify their roles and leave the normal rules of behavior behind, they expose themselves to danger.

Foley Sherman, a visiting professor of theatre at F&M, says the play deals with "how our longing for certainty in a world of mystery produces unexpected but inevitable consequences."

Through scenes of wry humor and bleak struggle, the play explores how fear drives the desire to name and punish what we cannot control. "When sexual confusion combines with fear and poverty, we demand a name for what we do not know. And that name is witch," Foley Sherman said.

He asserted that this idea of "witches" is a theme that resonates with our political choices today, many of which involve questions about the intersection of power and human sexuality.

"In the ongoing presidential election we face a choice that will determine who has access to health care and who controls women's reproductive rights," Foley Sherman said. "We have a candidate for the U.S. Senate who gained headlines for claiming that in cases of 'legitimate rape,' women's bodies 'shut down' and cannot conceive. 'Vinegar Tom' encourages audiences to reflect on the consequences of laws that regulate our relationship to our bodies."

Punctuating the action of the play will be musical interludes performed by members of the F&M's women's a cappella group Sweet Ophelia. The production also will feature a kinetic sculpture for a set that makes "unprecedented" use of the Schnader Theatre in the Roschel Performing Arts Center, Foley Sherman said. The set includes 30,000 feet, or 5.68 miles, of rope cut into 1,200 pieces that hang from moveable rails above the playing area. The audience will be seated on the stage.

A number of courses on campus are incorporating "Vinegar Tom" into their work this semester, including "Myth and Fairytale" and "Engaging Texts: Introduction to Literary Study," which is the gateway course to the English major, said Bonnie Bosso, F&M's theatre production and public relations manager.

The play will be presented at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 25; Friday, Oct. 26; and Saturday, Oct. 27. It also will be performed at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 28. Tickets are $10 and available through the box office website or by calling 717-358-7193.

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