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Escaped Alone
Photograph: Richard Termine

Theater review: Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone is a short, sharp shocker at BAM

Written by
Helen Shaw


Thoughts often stop in mid—. Sentences are only half—. And occasionally, just as someone's about to say something, the stage goes black, like a great eye has blinked shut. Interruption and suspension are the texture of Caryl Churchill's latest play; the themes, appropriately enough, are loneliness and the end of the world. But Escaped Alone still manages to be a floating, bewitching experience. It is gravely intended, but somehow nothing in it registers as weight.

Miriam Buether's set consists of a high wooden fence that flies away to show a garden. Wandering by, the curious and cheerful Mrs. Jarrett (Linda Bassett) has been invited inside to join three old friends who sit on mismatched lawn chairs and talk the afternoon away. All four are retired, women with burdens to carry, but they laugh and natter as the light fades, talking about food, husbands, and fantasizing about being birds. “Or hover like what?” asks Vi (June Watson). “A kestrel,” Lena (Kika Markham) answers, in the welter of chat and confessions.

If there is “flash fiction,” then this is flash drama: Churchill is done and dusted inside of 50 minutes. The brief text is divided between scenes in the garden and Mrs. Jarrett's interludes, which take place in a stripe of darkness between two rows of copper lights. (Director James Macdonald and lighting designer Peter Mumford used a framing fringe of illumination similarly in New York Theatre Workshop’s production of Churchill's Love and Information three years ago.) Mrs. Jarrett's knowledge comes from a time beyond—or perhaps she's inventing absurdist science-fiction. She tells us about catastrophes that seem taken from George Saunders or a really dark Adventure Time episode. “The hunger began when 80 percent of the food was diverted to television programs,” goes one nightmare scenario. And she's always quick to tell us how people tried to survive, post-apocalypse. “The obese sold slices of themselves,” she notes. Or, after a cave-in that she implies has crushed all of England: “Mushrooms were traded for urine.” (These are, each time, hilarious.)

Apocalyptic writing is usually a kind of comfort. “As bad as it is now,” we think,  “At least we're not trading mushrooms for urine!” Our world, reflected in a dark glass, looks just a tiny bit brighter by comparison. Churchill uses the End Times for something a bit more intimate. Escaped Alone pauses four times for four monologues, when each woman reveals what's actually in her mind. Sally (Deborah Findlay) has a debilitating phobia; Vi is still reeling from past violence; Lena is fighting depression. And yet they're all so charming, so sweet as they start singing a quick four-part harmony on “Da Doo Ron Ron.” The atmosphere manages to stay light as a soap bubble, but Churchill's implications are devastating. The thoughts attacking the women are as mad, ridiculous and silly as Mrs. Jarrett's fantasies. Sally, for instance, is afraid of pussycats. And yet these fears overwhelm them as much as any tsunami, any earth-scouring inferno or terrible famine. Thank heavens they have each other, and an afternoon's worth of sunshine, to keep these internal catastrophes at bay.

BAM Harvey Theater (Off Broadway). By Caryl Churchill. Directed by James Macdonald. With Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson. 50mins. No intermission. Through February 26. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

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