Escaped Alone is a puzzling and strange one-act by British playwright Caryl Churchill, now in her 80s and resting on her laurels 57 years after her first play for BBC radio. It involves a group of three women in their 70s – Sally (Karen MacDonald), Vi (Marya Lowry) and Lena (Carol Drewes) – who are joined by a fourth woman of similar age – Mrs. Jarrett (Debra Wise) – in a cozy English backyard garden. As they converse over tea, revealing bits of information about themselves ranging from Lena’s fear of leaving the house and Sally’s morbid fear of cats to Vi’s criminal history, Mrs. Jarrett experiences episodes where she spouts nonsense apocalyptic conspiracy theories, such as starvation brought on by all of the food supply being diverted to television and people watching it on their screens while being unable to gain sustenance from it.
The surreal visions of Mrs. Jarrett could be taken as anything from delusional to prophetic and in between, and it would be possible to justify any such interpretation from the text. There is clear symbolic meaning if one is inclined to a cynical and apocalyptic perspective, but that is ground well trod by others. Churchill seems to openly acknowledge this, even including a scene where the characters grow nostalgic for the old days when it was socially acceptable to make jokes about disadvantaged groups such as “morons,” which can be understood as a reference to the classic work The Marching Morons by Cyril Kornbluth, a cynical and apocalyptic 1951 short story about a future where the average IQ has declined to 45 and the few technocrats of above average intelligence struggle to keep the morons alive, a motif reprised in the 2006 film Idiocracy.
When Mrs. Jarrett has her episodes, the lights are narrowed so that only she is spotlit and there is an audio cue such as windstorm or explosions. The convention of theater is that the other unlit characters are essentially offstage and totally invisible, but MacDonald as Sally kept reacting as if she could hear the audio cues, which seems to me inconsistent with preserving the essential ambiguity for the audience whether what Mrs. Jarrett perceives is entirely in her head or has some nexus with object reality. It makes no sense that one character could participate in the mental delusions of another character: Whether that was a directing or acting issue, I consider it a mistake.
As mentioned in the superb director’s note in the program from Tony Estrella, “escaped alone” is a phrase made famous in the epilogue of Moby-Dick where Ishmael, who has narrated the whole story, explains that he was the sole survivor of the voyage: Herman Melville cites The Book of Job, 1:15-19, “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” That phrase is repeated like a staccato drumbeat, an unrelenting tattoo of lamentation, amidst the depressing literary grandeur of the King James Version, as messengers come to Job, four times in succession, to report disasters from enemy attack, fire and windstorm, in each case the messenger being the sole survivor. Notoriously, the British edition of Moby-Dick (under the title The Whale) incurred substantial censorship, including an apparently accidental printing error resulting in the complete omission of the epilogue – leading to the bizarre yet understandable conclusion by many readers that everyone died, leaving no narrator to tell the story. An apocalypse can be funny that way.
Caryl Churchill is a difficult and obtuse playwright, and I have previously described her work as reminiscent of Benny Hill – except that “Yakety Sax” is not playing and instead of bikini-clad girls the chases involve Marxist Brechtian dialectical conflicts. (I also called her “arguably the most virulent antisemite active in mainstream British theater,” but that is a separate flirtation with apocalypse.) All of her characters are terrified of something, but the key question is whether Mrs. Jarrett’s elaborate fantasies expressed while breaking the fourth wall have any more substance than the obviously irrational fears of the others. Is her madness a divine madness or just regular madness? She cannot know and we do not know, but I am unwilling to buy into such a bleak and depressing future that appeals to the tin-foil-hat-wearing crowd.
The Gamm follows the generally well-acted Escaped Alone with the elegantly choreographed Come and Go by Samuel Beckett using most of the same cast – MacDonald as Ru, Lowry as Vi, Drewes as Flo – which in a captivating 10 minutes manages to make one wonder why the earlier play takes 70 minutes to accomplish less.
Escaped Alone, by Caryl Churchill, and Come and Go, by Samuel Beckett, directed by Tony Estrella, performed by the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd, Warwick. Through Mar 17. About 90 minutes with no intermission. Handicap accessible. Refreshments available including full bar. Free off-street parking. Tel: 401-723-4266 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Web: gammtheatre.org/escapedalone Facebook: facebook.com/events/2308286542829683