Review: Vinegar Tom (Neoteny Theatre/The Playwright Project)

VinegarTom2Vinegar Tom is a thoughtful, evocative addition to Toronto’s Playwright Project

Vinegar Tom is Neoteny Theatre’s contribution to this year’s The Playwright Project featuring plays by Caryl Churchill and running exclusively at The Downstage. Vinegar Tom is the story of several women and their intersecting lives. It is set in England some time between the medieval and early modern periods at the height of the witch-hunt.

The play is divided into scenes in which character relationships are explored. Mother and daughter Joan and Alice live together near a dairy farm run by Margery and Jack. Relations appear strained when gluttonous Joan requests yeast from austere Margery. Added to this strain are Jack’s attraction to Alice and his unsolicited sexual advances. Alice and her friend, Susan, speak frankly about their desire and sexual agency. The unfortunate young neighbour, Betty, is branded an hysteric by the doctor because she feels pressured to marry a man she does not love.

Tensions rise when a series of mystical and/or inexplicable events occur. Margery’s butter fails to come, her bread doesn’t rise and her calves get sick. John suffers from erectile dysfunction and Susan miscarries after taking a potion from the ‘cunning woman’, Ellen. In this culture of superstition and fear, witchcraft becomes the scapegoat and accusations fall on the faultless with grave and gruesome consequences.

Despite being a period piece, Vinegar Tom uses accessible language to tell intriguing and engaging stories about characters the audience cares about. It covers regrettably-timeless themes of female suppression and control. Lyrical commentary is projected on the far wall between some of the scenes focusing our attention on various themes including gendered medicine and healing, sexual agency and autonomy, the patriarchal family system, conditional love and ageism.

Some questions I found to be the most poignant are ‘What’s wrong with me the way I am?’ and ‘Would they have hanged you then? … Who are the witches now?’ As a feminist and activist, this play resonates with me.

The production owes much of its success to its dynamic ensemble cast of classically trained actors. Madeleine Donohue plays the stern and proper Margery, desperate for her husband’s love. Sophia Fabilli evokes sympathy as the naïve and excitable Betty (sometimes a gal simply does not want to get married—I FEEL you!). John Gordon is the cruel husband, Jack, full of underplayed lechery. Kelly Penner is sinister and serpentine as Alice’s unnamed lover and evangelical as the ambitious witch hunter, Packer.

Sabryn Rock’s Alice is young, vulnerable, slightly vengeful and a threat to the patriarchal order. Lynne Griffin’s Joan is the bawdy love child of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath and Shakespeare’s John Falstaff. Keelin Jack portrays Ellen as an earthy and wise medicine woman. Jessica Moss is both funny and haunted as the conflicted Susan.

Vinegar Tom is not all scowls and finger pointing. While there are intense moments—a scene where Packer conducts a trial by ordeal made my friend, Caitlin, queasy—there are also moments of humour and tongue-in-cheek commentary. Imagine a final scene in which misogyny’s poster children Sprenger and Kramer defend their anti-woman treatise Malleus Maleficarum as Oliver Hardy look-alikes.

I sat enraptured from beginning to end of Vinegar Tom and I look forward to seeing the other shows in The Playwright Project. If you find you are not simultaneously entertained and incensed by this one, you are not paying close enough attention.


  • Vinegar Tom is playing at the Downstage (798 Danforth Avenue) as part of The Playwright Project
  • Remaining show times are Friday April 25, 9 pm, Saturday April 26, 3 pm, Sunday April 27, 6 pm, Thursday May 1, 7 pm, Saturday May 3, 1 pm, Sunday May 4, 8 pm
  • Tickets are $10 on weeknights and $15 on weekends (multi-show passes are also available)
  • Tickets can be purchased online or in person (CASH ONLY)

 Photo of Kelly Penner and Sabryn Rock by Kreddible Trout Photography