“Ripped from the headlines of 1621,” begins the program notes for the Red Bull Theater’s production of this rarely seen work by three (shades of Hollywood) Jacobean masters--Thomas Dekker, John Ford, and William Rowley. In this case, the headlines (in the form of a pamphlet that circulated after her trial) concerned Elizabeth Sawyer, an impoverished, elderly resident of Edmonton who was executed for witchcraft.
Supernatural elements were common in Shakespeare and in Jacobean plays (Macbeth gets career advice from three “midnight hags”), but this play is unusual, says Red Bull artistic director (and director of this production) Jesse Berger. “It is most remarkable for showing a seemingly accurate picture of small-town life in Jacobean England, and for its focus on the regular people of the time. No dukes or duchesses, kings or princes, just farmers and yeomen.”
Even though Sawyer and the play’s other protagonist, Frank Thorney, are lured into evil by the devil in the guise of a dog, Berger says that the real story is about “the power of community,” and “the struggle to maintain a moral code in times of economic distress.” Sawyer, poor and deformed, is scorned and reviled by her neighbors as a witch even before tapping into the dark side. And Thorney’s need to save his father from financial disgrace (today he’d have been an investor in sub-prime mortgages) leads him from bigamy to murder in an escalating series of disastrous decisions.
Sawyer is brought to molten life by Charlayne Woodard (an Obie Award-winner for Suzan Lori-Parks’ “In the Blood”), whose first appearance, from a hole that is evidently the town dump (and a subtle echo of a Hell mouth), calls viscerally to mind images of homelessness.
This is in keeping with Red Bull’s mission—to bring Jacobean drama to disturbing and relevant life. As the play’s devil dog says with callous satisfaction as Sawyer is being lead away to her death:
Let’ not the world, witches or devils condemn,
They follow us, and then we follow them.
“The Witch of Edmonton” opens Thursday night at the Theater at St. Clements for a limited run.