The set for the Canadian premiere of Caryl Churchill’s 2016 one-act play Escaped Alone—a spare, well-lit rectangle of floor space flanked on both sides by the audience, with a flock of paper birds suspended overhead (designed by Teresa Przybylski)—is perfect for bringing out the intimacy of the conversation that ricochets among the four characters seated onstage, as they spend a quiet afternoon tea together in a backyard in a small English town. They engage in a sprawling exchange of ideas, feelings, and experiences occasionally punctuated by the eldest woman, Mrs. Jarrett (played by Clare Coulter), who rises to recount to the audience a surreal tale of post-apocalyptic horrors destined to engulf us all. The environmental, social, and cultural woes spun out in this absurdist vision (war, toxins, rising waters, cruelty, wealth disparity, and mindless entertainment) seem closer to our present global reality than the relatively manageable lives of the four characters onstage, engaged in an often witty conversation over tea and biscuits. And yet, as each character in turn pauses to deliver a monologue that touches on her deepest anxieties, the submerged connections between the individual and the society in which she finds herself come to light. Each woman, closer to the end of her life than the beginning, contemplates a personal end of the world that is, in a way, an escape alone from the collective horrors of the future.
This latest drama by Churchill, in an illustrious career that spans over fifty years, shows the depth of her experience and craft. Its lyrical intensity, multiple layers, and rapid-fire verbal exchanges, demand much of the performers and the director (Jennifer Tarver) to keep the parts working together. All four actors—Clare Coulter as Mrs. Jarrett, Brenda Robins as Vi, Kyra Harper as Lena, and Maria Vacratsis as Sally—did a superb job of deftly bringing a fullness to their characters with often brief snippets of dialogue. The viewer was immediately drawn into the web of relationships among the four friends, and felt what was at stake when one or another of them began to tug at the strands. The staging and direction effectively made use of the audience flanking two sides of the stage, as though we were watching a verbal tennis match being played out before us by highly skilled athletes. There were occasional pauses in the dialogue, which seemed intended to let the significance of what was said sink in, but had the effect of letting the energy of the game flag too much at times. Aside from that small quibble, the performances were impeccable.
Coulter’s portrayal, at turns whimsical when gossiping with her friends, and chilling when recounting dystopian tales for the audience, was the most memorable of the evening, but all four characters still remain vivid in my mind. My only regret was that the play did not last longer. Just as I had become invested in the lives of these four women—their experiences, hard-won knowledge, and humour—the fifty minutes of the performance were up and the stage went dark, leaving me wanting to know more about where their lives were headed, and not wanting to face a reality outside the theatre that seems to be headed ever closer to Caryl Churchill’s bleak vision.