Churchill in the Country
by Barbara Waldinger
What a surprise to see a play by the acclaimed British feminist playwright Caryl Churchill among the summer offerings of local theatres, where musicals and comedies abound! Indeed, at Sharon Playhouse Churchill’s Far Away is nestled in between Footloose and Music Man. But, though Morgan Green will also direct Music Man, she does not shy away from challenging her audience to confront Churchill’s darkly comic apocalyptic vision.
In the 1980s, Churchill won Obie Awards for Cloud Nine, Top Girls and Serious Money. Yet her plays are often inaccessible. In a 2004 New York Times article about Churchill, Sarah Lyall noted that: “her elusiveness can be maddening for those trying to understand her plays which are elliptical, provocative, shocking and increasingly pared-down.” Far Away, first performed at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2000, is a forty-five minute, three-act play with a thin plot and a sparse, seemingly simplistic text.
The absence of stage directions liberates the director and designers to interpret Churchill’s text, which tells the story of Joan as a young woman (Madelynn Peterson) and an adult (Madeline Wise). In the first scene young Joan, unable to sleep, asks her aunt Harper (Mia Katigbak) a series of rapid-fire questions, as only a child can, having witnessed her uncle beating children and others in a shed. Harper, unsuccessful at satisfying her niece’s curiosity, finally invents a justification (her version of the real, secret “truth”): her husband is helping people to escape from danger by sheltering them.
When next we meet the adult Joan, she is a milliner sharing an office with Todd (Gabriel Levey), an experienced hatter, whom she urges to fight corruption in the workplace. Their increasingly outrageous hat creations, subject to a judging contest, are worn by prisoners marching to their deaths in a macabre parade. In the third act, the three characters find themselves in a world war from which there is no escape and no certainty as to who their friends or enemies are or even on what side they’re fighting.
Churchill’s non-naturalistic, dystopian play is accompanied by a war glossary (printed in the program) with the following headings and a sample of the listings in each: ENEMY: Thai butchers, Latvian dentists; PAST ENEMIES: cattle and children in Ethopia, starlings; NOT THE ENEMY: Madagascar?, ospreys?; ALLIES: noise, babies; NOT YET MOBILIZED: river? darkness? These lists, comic though they seem, reflect the fear and paranoia that permeate the atmosphere of Far Away. The terrorized Joan, who needs to cross a river to return to her husband Todd, hesitates to put her toe in the water for fear that the river, if it is an enemy, might swallow her.
Why such a dark vision? In 2002-3, when Far Away ran at the New York Theatre Workshop in New York City, Artistic Director James C. Nicola explained: “I couldn’t help but look at the play as a response [to] Caryl’s dealing with her love of her grandchildren and thinking, ‘What do I say to them about this horrific world that we live in, and how can I prepare them for it without frightening or intimidating them?” (Lyall, NYTimes, 2004).
That production was nominated for the 2003 Lucille Lortel Awards for Outstanding Costume Design and Outstanding Sound Design. Morgan Green and her design team have also done a brilliant job with these essential aspects of the production. Carolyn Mraz, the Scenic Designer, creates a simple, no-nonsense set with four desks/chairs with a small black radio on each desk and an overhead lamp above it. The upstage wall is mirrored, which enhances the effect that we are all part of the war.
The Lighting Designer, Oona Curley, has devised a row of lights on the floor of the upstage wall, with three tracks that continue these lights up the walls and overhead. With no raised stage, the parade people walk in front of the audience across the long, narrow performance space from a stage right door to a stage left door that opens onto the same bright lights as we have seen in the playing area. Sudden bursts of bright light are frighteningly effective as we move from the dim lights of the overhead lamps to the bright hat factory scenes and the parade.
Along with the bursts of light are eruptions of loud, rock songs selected by Peter Mills Weiss, the Sound Designer, that shock the audience to attention. The Costume Designer, Asta Bennie Hostetter, dresses the actors in clothing that varies from uniforms of factory workers to formal wear, and THOSE HATS! Seventeen different people in long white tee shirts wearing the most outlandish hats are part of the parade, mimicking runway models, except that each is doing his/her own ghoulish dance in a rhythmic response to eerie, instrumental music. We have been told that, to the consternation of the milliners, the hats will be burned with the corpses. The images of these prisoners going to their deaths are seared in our psyches.
The cast, including little Madelynn Peterson, is uniformly excellent. Director Green reportedly instructed each actor to find what he/she needed directly from the text, eliminating any extraneous vocalizations, and inventing back stories drawn from the material. Dialogue is deliberate and not rushed, in the style of Pinter and Beckett. Movement is stylized and economical. The adult actors sometimes use words nonsensically, which they do in an absolutely believable, committed way, because they know it’s not the words, but the world they inhabit that is absurd. Perhaps that world is not so far away after all.
Kudos to Johnson Henshaw, Artistic Director of Sharon Playhouse, who has chosen to produce Far Away, gambling that even his summer audience would welcome provocative new work by young directors that can “shatter our notions of what theater is.”
Far Away runs from July 7—23 at the Sharon Playhouse. For tickets call 860-364-7469, ext. 201 or online at www.sharonplayhouse.org.
Sharon Playhouse presents Far Away by Caryl Churchill. Cast: Mia Katigbak (Harper), Gabriel Levey (Todd), Madelynn Petersen (Young Joan) and Madeline Wise (Joan). Director: Morgan Green, Scenic Design: Carolyn Mraz, Costume Design: Asta Bennie Hostetter, Lighing Design: Oona Curley, Sound Design: Peter Mills Weiss, Production Stage Manager: Lauren Moriah Stern. Running Time: forty-five minutes; at the Sharon Playhouse, 49 Amenia Road, Sharon, CT, from July 7; closing July 23.