British playwright Caryl Churchill is a revolutionary playwright. In her career, she has upset theatrical expectations many times over. She plays with gender and fools with time. She invents unusual form and creates outrageous content. Whether she is writing about sexual dominance, capitalism, or human cloning, she has never written a predictable play.
In 2016, London’s Royal Court Theatre produced Escaped Alone, a mixture of commonplace and dystopian worlds. Now Signature Theatre has the distinction of being only the second theater in the United States to produce Escaped Alone.
The play begins in the garden of a woman named Sally, whose yard is separated from the outside world by a very high wooden fence. Sally’s old friends, Vi and Lena, join her to chat over tea when another woman, Mrs. Jarrett, appears through a door in the fence. According to the stage directions, the women are at least seventy years old.
Sally, Vi, and Lena don’t know Mrs. Jarrett well, though they have seen her in the neighborhood. Lena refers to her as “that woman.” Sally knows her name and asks her to join them.
Escaped Alone is divided into eight parts. In the beginning of the first section, the women discuss family: their children and grandchildren, a niece who is a mathematical genius. The information comes in short, unfinished fragments from Sally, Vi, and Lena.
Then at the end of the first section, Mrs. Jarrett steps to the front of the stage and a gray/white curtain closes behind her, walling her off from the set. She stands still and delivers her monologue in a serious, informative voice. It is as far as possible from the light-hearted banter that was shared a moment ago by Vi, Sally, and Lena.
Mrs. Jarrett’s first horrendous apocalyptic vision is told in the past tense, as she narrates a vision of torrential rains, buried villages, flooded tunnels, and solitary survivors. Whether this is Mrs. Jarrett’s own private nightmare, informed by science fiction novels or televised documentaries on global warming, we are not told.
The second section of the play begins as the women recall what shops used to exist in their village: the antique shop, the nail parlor, the dentist. The primary voice in this section is Lena’s, who keeps insisting that she does “get out it’s just difficult.” This section ends with another vision of disaster by water voiced by Mrs. Jarrett, ending with a reference to “flood museums.”
As the play progresses, the women discuss everything from their favorite television dramas to their favorite birds to the way ethnic groups hate one another to Sally’s bizarre fear of cats – or something she thinks of as cats – which she believes could be anywhere, even “in a box of matches.” And at the end of each section, Mrs. Jarrett steps forward and imparts visions of chemical contagion, hunger, illness, and fire.
Mrs. Jarrett is portrayed beautifully by Valerie Leonard as a calm, intelligent, rational woman. As the closest thing to a narrator Escaped Alone has, one can assume that the quote from Moby Dick found on the frontispiece of the play applies to her: “I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” It is a testament to Leonard’s abilities as an actress that she seems as comfortable delivering her grotesque observations as she does singing and dancing wildly with the other three characters.
Sally is played by Helen Hedman as the perfect hostess. She emerges stage right with a tray, teapot, and cups and sets the tray on a table near the other actors. She continually fills empty cups throughout the play. Hedman is elegant and controlled until she launches into her aria on feline fear. Then her voice slowly rises as she starts a hilarious long stream-of-consciousness riff, recognizing all the many places that a cat could hide.
Catherine Flye plays Vi as a happy, vivacious woman with plenty of family and wonderful friends. The friends have her keys. She has theirs. When eventually the women get up and start to sing and dance, it is Vi who starts the singing. Flye makes it look utterly natural.
Brigid Cleary plays Lena, the saddest of the friends, who takes medication that has made her lose interest in life. Cleary is excellent as Lena, whose depression makes her not want to even talk. As Lena says plaintively, “Why move your mouth and do talking?”
Holly Twyford, one of the area’s finest directors and actors, directs Escaped Alone so that it comes in at exactly its normal running time – 55 minutes – without rushing any of the monologues or dialogue. Twyford emphasizes the abundant humor in the play, even where it exists in Mrs. Jarrett’s dark visions.
Scenic designer Paige Hathaway creates a lovely garden with purple morning glories growing over the fence, and white hydrangeas at the rear of the stage. The women sit in mismatched chairs, their tea-cups in their laps. Costume designer Alison Samantha Johnson dresses all the women in relaxed clothes, slacks and sweaters.
Lighting designer Maria Shaplin designs a sharp change to occur whenever Leonard steps forward before the curtain. There is a spotlight on her until her monologue ends. Then the curtain parts, she walks back to her chair, and continues talking to her friends.
It would be folly to try to compare Escaped Alone to another Churchill play. Churchill has once again created something totally new, not only in subject, but also in form. As in many of Churchill’s works, the ambiguity embedded within the play and the sense of its surreal surrounding is deliberate. By describing the need for intimacy and human connection in a threatening universe, Escaped Alone affords a glimpse into human consciousness unlike any we get from other playwrights.
Running Time: Fifty-five minutes, with no intermission.
Sound Designer: Victoria Deiorio