By Jennifer Appleby Chu

The devil went down to Edmonton, he was looking for a soul to steal. A lady alone with no hope of her own – she’d doubtless agree to the deal.

So begins Jen Silverman’s taut dramedy Witch, the opening offering of Oregon Contemporary Theatre’s 30th anniversary lineup. The show kicks the season off with a bang, delivering a rock-solid ensemble performance that is equal parts witty, painful, and tender.

In the little town of Edmonton, everyone blames outcast spinster Elizabeth Sawyer for all their misfortunes, from house fires to ailing livestock, though in truth Elizabeth has no real powers except her wit and tenacity.

Ostracized by the community for decades, she’s friendless, penniless, and powerless. She seems like a perfect mark to the devil. Technically, he’s a devil – a junior salesman in the field of soul bartering. He goes by Scratch.

Meanwhile, trouble is brewing at the castle. The local lord, Sir Arthur Banks, is beginning to ponder the future of his estate, and who will carry on his legacy — his gentle, sensitive son Cuddy, or the rakish Frank Thorney, whom Sir Arthur has recently taken under his wing.

The maid Winnifred, secretly Frank’s wife, watches with dismay as he grows more and more distant from her in his pursuit of advancement. (Side note: Frank and Cuddy are also on Scratch’s list of potential victims. He has plans for them both.)

This is a superb but challenging script for a director and cast, chock-full of unspoken needs and tiny beats which need to land perfectly. Director Tara Wibrew has built a tightly engineered dance between these characters, and the cast carries it off with beautiful clarity and precision.

Maya Thomas plays Elizabeth with radiant poise, firmly planted wherever she is. Beneath her composed exterior, however, lurks a smoldering fury at the wrongness of the world, one that has been building her whole life. It will lead her down paths even Scratch cannot dream of.

David Arnold’s Scratch is smooth and unhurried, the perfect salesman — at least until he begins getting to know this unusual client for real. It is one of the central highlights of the play, watching Elizabeth and Scratch gently probe one other, testing limits and revealing layers, as they slowly become each other’s only friend, and more.

In sharp contrast to their quiet negotiations stands the chaotic quadrangle of Cuddy, Frank, Winnifred, and Sir Arthur. It’s a tough call who has the most painful relationship with whom here. Cuddy loathes and loves Frank with equal passion, and Connor French gallantly embraces the huge roller coaster of impulses that this part requires.

Esack Francis Grueskin plays Frank with a Gaston-like swagger that hides real pain. (Watch for a superbly crafted sequence by fight coordinator Bill Hulings when their competition finally boils over.)

Annie Craven’s Winnifred, relegated to the sidelines by the men’s preoccupation with each other, finally finds a way to take control of her future, though her choice may dismay you.

And Edward Schoaps as Sir Arthur reminds us that while parents generally love their children the best way they know how, it’s not always the way those children need.

Witch also presents a design challenge: How historical should this play look, and sound? The dialogue is unapologetically — even gleefully — modern. Playwright Jen Silverman took her inspiration from the 1621 Jacobean drama, The Witch of Edmonton, but describes the setting as simply “then-ish”. This feels like less an order and more a hint, namely that the play has bigger priorities than getting the shape of Sir Arthur’s boot buckle just right.

The OCT design team has taken her hint to heart, crafting an atmosphere that is instead softly suggestive of place and time. Demara Cabrera’s costumes might pair a doublet above with slacks and loafers below. The set, designed by Amy Dunn, glows with the tones of wood and parchment, further amplified by the soft warmth of Emily Bolivar’s lighting.

The whole production floats on the near-constant current of Delos Leo Erickson’s original piano score, performed live on stage by Erickson to subtle but poignant effect. Simple, evocative props by Cameron Jackson make this world feel gently lived in.

The play’s aversion to a strict period feel is for a very good reason: It keeps these people in this moment. It prevents us from dismissing their struggles as relics of the time, when in fact they are as current as yesterday’s headlines. Children fighting to please their parents. Couples realizing they have grown in opposite directions. People carrying the daily weight of otherness and exhausted by society’s resistance to real, radical change.

If you are burdened by the same, you may quietly cheer at Elizabeth’s suggestion: “Burn it all down and start over.”

Witch continues at Oregon Contemporary Theatre

When: 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 22-24, 29-30 and Oct. 1; Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on Sept. 25 and Oct. 2

Where: Oregon Contemporary Theatre 194 West Broadway, Eugene

Tickets: $20-$34-$44; discounts available for students with current student ID, available online at or at the box office, 541-465-1506