A Personal View of the Coming Apocalypse: Caryl Churchill’s ‘Escaped Alone’

What a play! Escaped Alone is full of dramatic presentations announcing a coming apocalypse; an end of days. The production at Signature Theatre is receiving rightful praise (read my colleague Barbara Mackay’s review here).

Add me to those hoping you will see it.

Valerie Leonard as Mrs. Jarrett, Helen Hedman as Sally, Catherine Flye as Vi, and Brigid Cleary as Lena in 'Escaped Alone' at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.
Valerie Leonard as Mrs. Jarrett, Helen Hedman as Sally, Catherine Flye as Vi, and Brigid Cleary as Lena in ‘Escaped Alone’ at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

I was mesmerized well beyond the superlative performances and the overall production values of Escaped Alone. Beyond the sure-footed production directed by Holly Twyford, I “read” Escaped Alone’s playwright Caryl Churchill as taking on the role of a merciless Biblical messenger. She was speaking to us in these murky contemporary days, not from millennia ago. She was speaking about climate change, and way more.

Churchill was a messenger speaking through four mature women during teatime on a sunny day in a pretty backyard somewhere in the UK. It was about the Biblical proportions of pounding rains, destroyed towns, inundated tunnels, with plenty of death and wanton destruction leaving only a few survivors. It was about coming days of reckoning unless the messengers were heeded.

Quickly it came to me, filtered through my own Tanakh knowledge base. It was a dramatized Book of Job that I had studied and re-read over the years. Churchill’s storyline seemed more than a Herman Melville hunt for the White Whale as narrated by Ishmael as the lone survivor.

Had Churchill found a faith I had not seen before in her other plays? Had I missed something in the past? Had she become a prophet with her four characters delivering horrendous messages to me like a slap across my face–pay heed or suffer the consequences?

More specifically, was the character of Mrs. Jarrett (persuasively portrayed by Valerie Leonard) created by Churchill aiming and successful in awakening audiences to something beyond a secular message? Or is the current divide between religion and secular lives so wide that it is not crossable? A message that horrors await even the good and righteous if God wills it so? Was Churchill being coy about a newly awakened faith in herself and speaking about it to those taking in her Escaped Alone? Did it matter?

Valerie Leonard as Mrs. Jarrett in 'Escaped Alone' at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.
Valerie Leonard as Mrs. Jarrett in ‘Escaped Alone’ at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

With Escaped Alone, Churchill, always a ferocious playwright, points fingers at us, her audiences. She was not just trying to entertain. Rather she was telling audiences through the words of her four female characters that we the audience need to pay heed to what might be in store if we, the well-heeled privileged folk, remain oblivious to the destruction of nature and the suffering of other human beings.

And in a stroke of genius, Signature has a short video for audiences to take in after the 55-minute production of Escaped Alone. It is full of information and knowledge about the script and the production. Signature also serves tea as one grapples with Escaped Alone. Take the opportunity to explore this new work from the great Caryl Churchill. How did you feel after the end of the show? What was your takeaway?

Perhaps even re-read The Book of Job. I did. I thank Caryl Churchill for having me do that in response to her Escaped Alone. In her own private life, is Churchill, like the Biblical Job, also arguing with God? I have no clue. But do see Signature’s Escaped Alone.

Running Time: Fifty-five minutes, with no intermission.

Escaped Alone plays through November 3, 2019, at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, VA. For tickets, call 703-820-9771 or go online.

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Metro Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.

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