Thursday, February 23, 2017

"Escaped Alone" - Presenting Horrors Large and Small

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Lewis Carroll once wrote that the time has come to talk of many things. In what might be described as an ominous allegory with elements of pitch-black comedy, Caryl Churchill does just that with her striking one-act piece, Escaped Alone. The work originating at the Royal Court Theatre in London and currently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

In an almost pastoral backyard setting, Sally (Deborah Findlay), Vi (June Watson), Lena (Kika Markham) and Mrs. Jarrett (Linda Bassett), are enjoying the day, swapping bits of gossip and sharing the latest news. All in the neighborhood of sixty, Sally, Vi and Lena are long-time friends, while Mrs. Jarrett is a relative newcomer to the group. She being initially invited to join the others as the play begins, and it's through her eyes the audience learns about the other three. Explanatory asides and background information directed in such a way as to bring everyone up to speed on specific relationships and situations.

However, it's not long before this outwardly genial location vanishes, via some bands of red lights and crackling sounds, leaving a darkened stage where Mrs. Jarrett relates how, due to a series of global upheavals, normal everyday life has ceased to exist. Scenarios where the question is not how long those still living can survive; but rather how long before the horror of it all drives those survivors completely insane.

It’s via the continual switching between these two settings that the full power of Escaped Alone can be felt. The women, having no inkling of what is to come, are all dealing with their own personal issues. Matters which pale in comparison to the other situations presented. Yet at the same time, the apocalyptic horrors described are all in the abstract - though one could argue that given the current political state of the world, they may be closer to reality than ever - while the issues affecting the ladies are completely relatable, understandable, and to them, life-defining. 

Lena may be suffering from agoraphobic, while Sally has an overwhelming fear of cats. Vi is struggling with the aftereffects from having killed someone, albeit in self-defense; a situation made even more tenuous when Sally reveals she may not told the entire truth of what happened when the matter came to trial. She being more eager to help her friend than present a full picture of what happened. As for Mrs. Jarrett, she is prone to fits of rage. In an ironic twist, the ladies' half-hearted attempts to help one another - such as Sally continually telling Lena she needs to get out more, or the group tiptoeing about the word "cats" - only serve to make the quartet's already uneasy relationship with their fears that much more tenuous.

Also visible throughout is an overall feeling of biting commentary. Such as in the first scene, which shows Mrs. Jarrett passing a large fence which encloses the backyard. She pausing in front of a doorway until invited inside. The way the sequence is presented making one think of a border wall, and the myriad of issues that go with it. Even though Churchill wrote this play before Donald Trump took office, the cord the scene strikes shows how certain matters not always in the front of public consciousness can quickly move front and center when circumstances change.

The cast, all of whom came over from London, are excellent. Each able to make their characters quite real and fully believable. Indeed, the four could be any group of women, sitting in any sort of comfortable surrounding and the play would work just as well. The bond between Sally, Lena and Vi, and to a lesser degree Mrs. Jarrett, clearly visible. Even when one of them tries to verbally guide another in a way the person to whom the comments are directed does not wish to go.

James Macdonald's direction is sure-handed, keeping the performances restrained for the most part - though all four women have their break-out moments - while allowing the strength of Churchill's text to come roaring through. Eschewing the “show, don’t tell” premise, dialogue and description are the keystones for triggering the audience’s imagination to fill in the nuts and bolts of the more terrifying moments.

Clocking in at just under an hour, the work wisely doesn't overstay its welcome. The switching of scenarios getting more frequent as time goes on, with some of them so bleak it’s almost a relief when the story returns to the backyard. After all. who wouldn’t prefer a rousing rendition of "Da Do Ron Ron” to talk of babies being born without eyes?

A totally absorbing piece about how ordinary people are forced to deal with the situations life throws at them, Escaped Alone, the title having its roots in the Book of Job and Moby Dick, is a very powerful and thought-provoking work.

Featuring: Linda Bassett (Mrs. Jarrett), Deborah Findlay (Sally), Kika Markham (Lena), June Watson (Vi)

Escaped Alone
by Caryl Churchill
Scenic Design: Miriam Buether
Lighting Design: Peter Mumford
Sound Design: Christopher Shutt
Directed by James Macdonald

Brooklyn Academy of Music
Harvey Theatre
651 Fulton Street
Tickets: 718-636-4100 or
Running Time: 55 minutes, no intermission
Closes: February 26, 2017