Whistler in the Dark is one of those literate, daring theater companies that unfailingly challenges audiences. Whether the company's new production of the pungent and rarely produced 1976 play "Vinegar Tom" will also delight is as much a matter of the viewer's frame of mind as anything else.
The story has it that playwright Caryl Churchill wrote the play against the political backdrop of Britain's 1970 Women's Rights Act. The play works well as a metaphor and an illustration of how women were mistreated and summarily categorized as witches in the 1700s; it also carries a discernable bitterness toward men, who are depicted here as callous, malicious, and -- under a veneer of civilized conduct - murderous.
But other women are scarcely any better. Like their menfolk, the women of this play are given to playing the witchcraft card when an acquaintance or neighbor insults, frightens, or inconveniences them. The haphazard, commonplace misfortunes of life on a farm (sick livestock, cream that refused to congeal into butter) are all too easily interpreted as the result of a curse or a spell; from there, it's a gallop to the conclusion that a supernatural agency, in collusion with human evil, has targeted those upon whom such misfortunes fall.
Whistler stalwart Mac Young takes the directorial reigns for this production, which continues through Feb. 2 at the Boston Center for the Arts. Young makes some canny, clever choices; serving double duty as set designer, he creates a skeletal house frame that allows us to peer into the inner workings of a small English community nearly three centuries ago. Costume designer Emily Woods Hogue clothes the female cast members in simple white gowns, while the men wear ordinary trousers, shirts, and vests. We're presented with a vision of piety and transparency -- but those appearances are meant to be deceptive, and they are presented to us in a pointed fashion.
Underneath the townsfolk's' overt fear of evil is evil in full flower: Pettiness, vengeance, rage. The first scene involves a tryst between the free-spirited Alice (Becca A. Lewis) and a gent (David Anderson) who is quick to threaten her with charges of witchcraft when he feels she's slighted him. It's a double-edged threat, carrying as it does absolution for his own sexual guilt by laying the blame for his seduction (even his desire) at her feet.
Alice lives with her elderly mother, Joan (Karin Webb), who comes under suspicion when her repeated pleas for charitable gifts of food begin to irritate her neighbors, a dairy farmer named Jack (John Greene) and his wife, Marjerie (Caroline Price). It can't help matters that Jack has his lustful eye trained on Alice, who refuses to give him the time of day; but the driving force behind the eventual accusations comes from Margery, who claims that Alice's cat (the "Vinegar Tom" of the title) has visited black magic on her farm. Margery mutters plaintive, unwittingly ironic statements such as, "It's good people the witches mean to hunt." Later on, catching sight of the dead, hanging body of an accused, Margery gasps -- with shock? Shame? Any pang of remorse? No such luck: "Thank you, God," she cries out, "for protecting us from the witches!"
Not all such displays are meant to be taken as disingenuous. The hysteria of the witch-hunt we see take place here is supposed to be real enough, though clearly there is self-interest at work in the way that fear is channeled and directed. What ratchets things into high gear is the arrival of Parker (Anderson once again), a professional witch hunter and his relentless, pitiless female assistant, a local named Goody (Melissa Berker) who is eager to collaborate with him.
Like today's televangelists, the two of them seem to operate out of a mixture of true belief and fathomless cynicism. Their rhetoric is self-contained, circular, and lethal to those against whom it is applied; their methods of inquiry are nothing less than torture, some of it bordering on sexual abuse; their aim is nothing less than the killing of those who exist at the margins of the community. Alice and Joan, being women living without the protection (and validation) of a man, are easy targets, as is Betty (Melis Aker), a young woman from a prosperous family who resists the idea of marriage. In the way of such things, the witch hunt widens and becomes more engulfing than those who initially support it count on; one of Alice's friends, Susan (Jennifer Reddish), spooked by the whole business, hastens to testify against Alice, only to find herself implicated -- as is a local practitioner of traditional medicine, a woman named Ellen (Obehi Janice).
The play underscores the absurdity of such witch-hunts by incorporating jazzy musical interludes that comment on the play's action. The lyrics are part of Churchill's original script, but Whistler has engaged local musicians Veronica Barren and Tony Leva to re-compose and perform the songs. They do so in the manner of jazz club performers, which seems all the better given that jazz, at its origins, was regarded as suspect: Sexy and subversive, "the Devil's music." So too, in its best moments, this play -- and also a reminder of how prejudice and baseless terror can mute our better angels.
"Vinegar Tom" continues through Feb. 2 at the Boston Center for the Arts, located at 527 Tremont Street in Boston's South End. Tickets cost $15 - $30; Wednesdays are "Pay What You Can," with a minimum donation of $10. Tickets available online at www.whistlerinthedark.com/boxoffice.htm or via phone at 617-933-8600.