The devil doesn’t bother disguising himself in Jen Silverman’s exceedingly smart new comedy at Writers Theatre. But even after allowing him to introduce himself, the men of Edmonton fear this young Scratch less than they do Elizabeth Sawyer, the outcast, falsely accused woman who’s the target of whispered blame for all the town’s troubles.
Silverman’s “Witch,” confidently staged in this world premiere production by Marti Lyons, takes inspiration from “The Witch of Edmonton,” a 1621 collaboration by the Jacobean playwrights William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford. Based on a real case in England, “The Witch of Edmonton” challenged the contemporary “witch craze” by presenting its accused, “Mother Sawyer,” as an innocent woman only turned vengeful by her persecution. (Notably, the English scribes made this case 70 years before the Salem witch trials led to 19 executions in colonial Massachusetts.)
Silverman keeps the period setting and a handful of characters from the earlier play, but animates them with modern language and attitudes. Scratch (Ryan Hallahan, deploying the same channels of charm and menace he brought to Steppenwolf’s “Pass Over” last year for comic purpose here) isn’t so much the devil as he is a representative of the devil’s team: a “junior salesman,” as he puts it, peddling wish fulfillment in exchange for souls. As in all such pacts, of course, his clients aren’t careful enough in what they wish for.
‘Witch’ ★★★1⁄2 When: Through Dec. 16 Where: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe Tickets: $35 – $80 Info: writerstheatre.org Run time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission
That’s true for both Cuddy Banks (Steve Haggard) and Frank Thorney (Jon Hudson Odom), to whom Scratch makes seemingly contradictory promises. Cuddy is the son of the local bigwig, Sir Arthur (David Alan Anderson) — “he’s super important, everybody knows him.” But Cuddy can’t connect with his pop and his manly pursuits, when Cuddy just wants to dance — morris-dancing, specifically, a ritual folk style traditionally performed by all-male troupes. (Silverman turns this detail plucked from the 17th-century text into a prime running joke.)
Frank, on the other hand, is a low-born but exceedingly accomplished young man whom Sir Arthur has welcomed into the big castle. Favored by Arthur, who has an easier time relating to Frank than to his own son, Frank is looking to seize the opportunity to rise above his station, even as he has to hide the fact that he’s secretly married to Arthur’s servant girl Winnifred (Arti Ishak). Approached separately by Scratch, Frank trades his soul to be named Arthur’s heir, while Cuddy, alternately resentful and desirous of his rival, asks the devil to take Frank out of the picture.
With that side of the story set in inexorable motion, Scratch moves on to his third mark, Elizabeth (Audrey Francis, glorious). Already hardened by years of nasty allegations and dirty looks, Elizabeth proves flintier than the devil himself; after hearing his inventory of favorite punishments (warts, pox, insects, etc.), she asks if he has anything in “a less trivial version … pitch it to me the way you’d pitch it to a man.” Yet even after he acquiesces, she rebuffs his offer. The devil, unused to hearing “no,” is duly intrigued.
As in the multi-authored original, Silverman allows her “Witch” to play out on these separate tracks: Cuddy and Frank, each struggling for the upper hand over banquets at the castle while waiting for their bargains to come to fruition, alternate scenes with Scratch’s return visits to Elizabeth and the growing spark between them.
Silverman’s wry comic voice comes through much more effectively in this fable-like mode than it did in the realistic setting of “The Roommate,” which Steppenwolf mounted in a less persuasive production this summer. The playwright’s ear for patterns of speech, and the halting language of longing, is marvelous here, and brought to exquisite life by this knockout cast.
It’s always a pleasure to see Francis in steely, no-B.S. mode, and Hallahan is at his silver-tongued best, but it might be Haggard who’s the M.V.P. here, deliciously intertwining Cuddy’s outer petulance with his inward craving for affection. And with all six of these complex characters, Silverman and Lyons take opportunities to thread in trenchant and all-too-timely commentary, particularly on the costs of rigidly gendered expectations.
A back-to-back pair of codas gives the play’s end a slight feeling of overextension. But that’s a small, and fixable, misstep for a production that casts an otherwise intoxicating spell.