In the King James Bible version of the Book of Job, messenger after messenger arrives with a tale of woe that ends with the line: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” The epilogue of Moby-Dick, as Ishmael floats alone in a vast and empty sea after the destruction of the Pequod, begins with the same line. Even without knowing the reference, the eerie phrase Escaped Alone hangs over Caryl Churchill’s seemingly (at first) sunny and innocuous play, which begins with a curious neighbor inviting herself into a gathering of neighbors in a sunlit backyard on a warm day. The four retired women–three of them longtime friends and the fourth almost a stranger and definitely an interloper–pass this slice of afternoon in a wash of chit-chat that’s both idle and purposeful, with undercurrents that, in director James Macdonald’s supple staging, shift constantly from friendly and innocent to obscurely menacing.
The piece is barely an hour long yet there’s a strong sense of a leisurely, empty stretch of time passing; these are retired people with nothing to do and a nagging sense of both relief and frustration at the lack of obligation that now rules their days. Lots of it is catch-up and filling one another in on the various doings of various children, nieces, grandchildren, deceased dogs. Some of it is flights of fancy: musing about their preferred superpowers, about birds and the perfidy of cats, the complexities of the multiverse and quantum physics (one of the women’s nieces is a physicist). And then there’s picking at one another’s sore sports–Lena’s agoraphobia or social anxiety; Sally’s obsessive terror of cats; Vi’s criminal past.
But they also have to negotiate Mrs. Jarrett–the outsider, who doesn’t know all the people in the stories, or even why Vi “went away” for six years a long time ago. She’s dared to breach the gate and insert herself into the micro-universe the other three share–but not fully. The play shuttles back and forth between the dreamy almost-realism of a gently sunlit backyard (designed by Miriam Buether and lit by Peter Mumford) and a stark black frame lit in fizzing and crackling red, where Mrs. Jarrett narrates a series of increasingly elaborate, macabre, and intricate tales of the crumbling of society. It’s impossible to tell, at first, where we’ve gone when the stage goes black: Are we inside her brain when we snap from the backyard to the black stage? Are we in one of the desperate futures she imagines, where the city or the world is buried under hundreds of thousands of tons of rock, or flooded by rain and tsunami, or scoured by wind, or poisoned by chemicals that turn falling-out hair into an environmental scourge, or starved by the diversion of the food supply? The only consistency in these various apocalypses is that some form of corporate greed run amok is at their root (a view of rapacious capitalism quite different from the mild nostalgia with which they all look back on the jobs they once held, the local economy in which they all participated as hairdresser, doctor/nurse and office worker).
Mrs. Jarrett’s dark imaginings (or are they premonitions?) give the most direct link to Job and Ishmael—both survivors of macabre and unimaginable disasters–but all of the four women also have smaller individual struggles. They have, or had, husbands and children and large extended families (and one another), but each also has isolating terrors and anxieties that they struggle to escape: Vi (June Watson, earthy and plain-spoken) has never found her way back to the life she had before she “went away” to prison; Lena (an ethereally dignified Kika Markham) stores up all her energy just to get out of bed by midafternoon; Sally’s ailurophobia has tipped all the way over into obsessive-compulsive behavior (Deborah Findlay is sunny and matter-of-fact until she gives a glimpse of the whirring gears inside her terrified mind)–and Mrs. Jarrett (Linda Barrett, brashly impervious to the emotional currents) can’t even articulate her internal struggle beyond a roar of “terrible rage.”
Macdonald and Churchill have worked together for many years now, and his comfort and fluidity help bring together the disparate elements and the wild currents of anarchic energy that run through her recent work. The shuttle between light conversation and glimpses of the end of days, and between the surface conversations and darker interior monologues, could be jarring, but instead they balance and offset each other. And while all four performers are strong, Linda Bassett in particular grounds the wilder stretches of this play, bringing pragmatism and dark humor even to the most grotesque of her own imaginings, coupled with a cheery obtuseness in the “real world” sections of the play.
The piece slowly starts to spiral apart. The potential apocalypses get stranger and stranger, with black comedy and vividly surreal imagery bubbling out of them. And the backyard women sink further and further into their own psyches, each of them less escaped alone than trapped alone–until Mrs. Jarrett gets up, closes the gate, and goes back home, completely normally and as if none of the foregoing had been disturbing at all. Nothing is concluded; nothing is explained; no secrets are revealed to anyone except the audience–and one feels perhaps the whole sequence will take place again tomorrow. It’s unresolved but oddly satisfying.