For those unfamiliar with the work of British playwright Caryl Churchill, Signature Theatre’s production of Escaped Alone (2016) may come as a bit of a shock.
Skillfully directed by well-loved local actress Holly Twyford, Escaped Alone opens on a picturesque, yet unfussy, backyard garden. Three gracefully aging English women (Catherine Flye, Helen Hedman and Brigid Cleary) recline comfortably in folding chairs, sipping tea and chatting with the relaxed air of old friends. Each is dressed casually, in cheerily bright colors and patterns that echo their environs (costume design by Alison Samantha Johnson). Scenic designer Paige Hathaway includes a gently trickling fountain and Sound Designer Victoria Deiorio a backdrop of birdsong to add to an overall idyllic scene.
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A fourth woman, Mrs. Jarrett (Valerie Leonard), walks past the open garden gate and is invited in. It is clear from the outset, from both her appearance and the reactions of the closely-knit friends, that Jarrett is an outsider. Dressed in drably functional, close-fitting clothes in muted olives and grays, Mrs. Jarrett is slightly younger, with short cropped gray hair and a purposeful, almost militaristic, swagger. As tea and conversation resume, the women’s talk resettles into a soothing prattle of the minor ailments of old age and the well-being of various family members, often trailing off with the knowledge that each is already well familiar with each other’s stories.
Suddenly, the women freeze and Mrs. Jarrett steps to the lip of the stage—a stark white curtain drawing closed behind her to separate her from the charming garden scene. Mrs. Jarrett launches into a chilling description of a dystopic world in which the lower classes are driven underground by greedy corporations, toxic chemicals are poured through the cracks, and “the number of birth deformities outstrips the yearly immigration of plastic surgeons.” Leonard’s intensity is palpable. Tears run down her face as she pleads with the audience to absorb the details of the human suffering she describes.
Just as suddenly, Mrs. Jarrett steps back and the tea party continues. Yet now, as the women blithely prattle on, darker facts start to slip into the conversation. Sally (Hedman), the perky blonde hostess, has a paralyzing fear of cats that keeps her up at night, checking and rechecking the locks to make sure one hasn’t slipped into the house. Vi (Flye) killed her husband with a kitchen knife (In self-defense? Her memory is fuzzy on that point.) and worries she might have exposed her then-12-year-old son to too much blood. Lena (Cleary) suffers from such crippling fear of the outside world that a single thought leaves her glued in a seated position for hours at a time. She longs to visit Japan but can’t seem to make it to the local grocery shop.
Escaped Alone closes November 3, 2019. Details and tickets
Hedman, Flye and Cleary are masterful in their layering of laissez-faire moments of fun with friends with fleeting glimpses at their underlying anxieties and barely contained despair. Each, in a brief, confidential aside to the audience, breathes life into the particular moment (a missed cancer diagnosis, a drunken argument) that stalks their everyday happiness. Twyford adeptly orchestrates these moments to create a tension that keeps the audience anxiously monitoring each character, scanning the actresses faces for signs of a break down.
And so it continues back and forth—the women freezing mid-sip and Jarrett taking a powerful stance at the front of the stage to detail not one but seemingly many, conflicting, apocalyptic worlds (Of the past? The future? In her own imagination?). In one, the people are driven not underground but up to their rooftops by a flood of toxic water, dying from thirst as they attempt to catch pigeons in their fishing nets. In another, corporations send a rockslide to kill the underclasses, with rocks engineered to seek out individual children’s heads.
It is in these monstrously crafted details that Escaped Alone exemplifies Churchill’s particular brand of gruesomely dark comedy and pointed political satire, perhaps best known in the United States for her plays Cloud Nine (1979) and Top Girls (1982). Both centered on themes of sexual politics and the sacrifices made by women to succeed in male dominated cultures, and each earned the playwright New York’s prestigious Obie Award for best new play.
In the intervening 25-years, Churchill’s style has only grown darker and more politically pointed. Describing a world in which “80% of food was diverted to TV programs,” and the people were issued smartphones, “so the dying could watch cooking,” while the obese “sold slices of themselves,” Churchill lambasts a screen-obsessed culture, controlled by capitalistic forces that value television ratings over human life. At the same time, Churchill’s work has also grown more abstract, sometimes to the point of feeling impenetrable. In Escaped Alone, much is left to the audience’s imagination as to the connection between these dystopic worlds and the underlying traumas suffered by its three main characters.
Escaped Alone is ultimately a beautifully acted and directed production of the work of one of England’s most lauded living playwrights. It does, however, require a thick skin on the part of the audience, and a willingness to be left feeling unsettled and unsatisfied as to what Churchill may be trying to convey.
Escaped Alone. by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Holly Twyford. Scenic Design by Paige Hathaway. Featuring Brigid Cleary, Catherine Flye, Helen Hedman, Valerie Leonard, Lighting Design by Maria Shaplin. Costume Design by Alison Samantha Johnson. Sound Design by Victoria Deiorio. Casting by Kelly Crandall d’Amboise. Production Stage Manager Samantha Wilhelm. Assistant Stage Manager Joey Blakely. Produced by Signature Theatre. Reviewed by Meaghan Hannan Davant.