This is an enigmatic, intense, mesmerizing show. Combine four incredible actors (Brigid Cleary, Catherine Flye, Helen Hedman and Valerie Leonard), and Holly Twyford as the director with writing that is a howling elegy for what we could lose as our world spirals away from us, and you have a tour-de-force that demands to be seen and heard and discussed.
This is, simply put, great theatre. It’s a warning to us all that our world is convulsing over our treatment of her. It’s a testament to the wisdom of love. It’s incredible, in every sense of the word.
Consider this play a warning shot across humanity’s bows.
Somewhere in England, three friends are having afternoon tea as they often do. This time, a neighbor on a walk, Mrs. Jarrett, looks in the open gate and is invited in. Over the course of the afternoon, they will talk amiably about children, nieces and nephews, grandchildren, television shows and their lives. Of course, periodically the apocalypse pops by for a reality check.
Written by Caryl Churchill in 2016 when she was 79, this is not a shy show. This show paints in clear and profound language what the stakes are for all of us.
At intervals, the action freezes and Leonard ambles to the front of the stage as a heavy white curtain draws across, physically separating the fading English afternoon from what might be, or perhaps what was. That’s part of the enigma—can it happen? Has it happened? Do we have any time left? Each time, Leonard takes a couple of minutes to describe another horror of a climate gone mad and the human cost. The descriptions are vivid—gut-wrenchingly so.
And they’re not anything that humans haven’t witnessed in discrete doses throughout our recorded history. Only now, as Churchill emphasizes, they are happening faster and faster and bigger and louder.
As Sally, Helen Hedman is the proper host in whose garden everyone gathers. Catherine Flye is Vi (and the dialect coach) , we come to learn, has done a stint in prison for accidentally killing her abusive husband; she was a hairdresser. Lena (Brigid Cleary) who rarely leaves her home, except to come to Sally’s.
But the women are not doom and gloom, completely. At one point, they break into a spontaneous song with Petula Clark’s hit, “Downtown.” Whatever horrors might be happening, or have happened, or will happen, there is still the power of something ineffable—call it love—to unite them. They will not be counted out.
Artfully, again at intervals, the women freeze, and each one gets a short monologue that teases us with revelations of what keeps them awake at night—the little fears. They artfully also invite us in with bits of idle speculation, such as “What kind of bird do you want to be?” These are not entirely idle questions as they reveal deep truths.
Sometimes, these three old friends hurt each other, willfully. But in Churchill’s hands, opening the seams of the scars and picking the scabs becomes a catharsis and forgiveness.
But it is the apocalyptic images that will haunt you, especially as delivered by Mrs. Jarrett in her spare, no-nonsense tone. They are realistic and surreal at the same time; for example, developers caused a wind that devastated the world. “Buildings migrated from London to Lahore, Kyoto to Kansas City, and survivors were interned for having no travel documents. Some in the whirlwind went higher and higher, the airsick families taking selfies in case they could ever share them. Shantytowns were cleared. Pets rained from the sky. A kitten became famous.” The images are unforgettable.
But for all their coziness, the unsettling undercurrents are always there. In one unforgettable scene, Leonard utters the words “terrible rage” over and over until she’s howling them as the sky turns darker.
These four actors provide a master class in bringing characters to life. The energy and chemistry are ineffable. Twyford directs the play unflinchingly and with no wasted moments. The subtle lighting design (the sky slowly grays—from evening coming? From smoke? From a nuclear winter?) is by Maria Shaplin; it underscores the underlying tension. And women were the main designers: Paige Hathaway as scenic designer; Alison Samantha Johnson as costume designer; and Victoria Deiorio as sound design.
This is only the second production of the play in the United States; it begs, cries out, demands to be produced more often. If only this cast and director and crew could be forever attached. But for those who go see it, they will never forget it.
This is, simply put, great theatre. It’s a warning to us all that our world is convulsing over our treatment of her. And it’s a testament to the wisdom of love. It’s incredible, in every sense of the word.
Running Time: 50 minutes with no intermission. Tea and biscuits after the show, with a short video from the director and the actors.
“Escaped Alone” runs through November 3, 2019, at Signature Theatre, Arlington, VA. For more information, please click here.