Theatre @ York presents ‘The Witch of Edmonton’

Theatre @ York’s season finale is the Jacobean drama The Witch of Edmonton, running March 20 to 26 in the Sandra Faire & Ivan Fecan Theatre at York University.

Penned by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford in 1621, the play was based on an actual person and supposedly real-life events that gripped the village of Edmonton, near London, earlier that year.

Director Anita La Selva (right) sets this sensational “tabloid” story in the ultra-conservative, postwar American Midwest circa 1950. The plot entwines two rather lurid small-town criminal cases: the antics of the titular witch, Mother Sawyer, and her devil-familiar, and the wretched moral predicament faced by a very unheroic young man named Frank Thorney.

Looking at the plight of these two central characters, La Selva saw strong similarities in the way non-conformists were persecuted and ostracized in the play’s original 17th-century English setting and in mid-20th century American society where Theatre @ York’s production unfolds.

“With widespread intolerance, anti-Communism and hypocrisy couched in the preservation of the moral order, early 1950s America offers a parallel world where the persecution of a ‘witch’ was both believable and acceptable,” La Selva said.

When she first read The Witch of Edmonton she was struck by the sense that the moral transgressions of the individuals in the play were a direct result of the social and religious pressures thrust upon them by their community.

“Society had a moral responsibility to care for its inhabitants, including those who had strayed from the fold and were in need of charity,” said La Selva. “Why, then, did it do just the opposite? And why did I feel that I had heard this story many times before?”

La Selva, who is currently completing her MFA in directing in York’s Department of Theatre, is a Toronto-based actor and director. As a performer, her stage credits include Madre (Aluna Theatre), The Carpenter, Carmela’s Table (Centaur Theatre) and Bye Bye Baby (Imago Theatre/Centaur), and her television credits include four years on Gene Roddenberry’s Earth: Final Conflict. She recently directed The Burning Bush for Toronto’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts and the Toronto Fringe (where it won Best of the Fringe), Vancouver’s Chutzpah Festival, and the New York City Frigid Festival, where it won the Audience Choice award.

Theatre @ York’s production of The Witch of Edmonton features a number of hymns in new arrangements sung by the cast of actors from the Department of Theatre. A creative team of undergraduates is handling all aspects of the production design and execution including the music.

Now in its 42nd season, Theatre @ York is one of Toronto’s longest-running theatre companies. Every year, the company features some of Canada’s most promising performance and production talent in a challenging and entertaining slate of plays drawn from the contemporary and classical repertoire.

The play previews March 20 and 21, opens March 22, then runs nightly to March 26 at 7:30pm. There are matinees March 23 and 25 at 1pm. Performances take place in the Sandra Faire & Ivan Fecan Theatre. General admission $17; students and seniors $12; previews $5. For tickets, call the box office at 416-736-5888 or purchase online.