The cosiness of the setup of Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone is entirely disarming. Mrs. Jarrett (Linda Bassett), walking down the street, sees an open door leading into a garden, sitting in which are three women she’s seen before. They invite her to join them, and the four begin amiably conversing about topics big and small: family members, lost keys, personal maladies. The only thing missing from this gentle English scene is tea, which sits on the ground on a tray but is never touched. Perhaps because there’s something unspeakably nasty in the water.
Escaped Alone, running through February 26 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a production first staged by London’s Royal Court Theatre, is built on sudden, jarring oscillations between the serene garden the women sit in and a world Mrs. Jarrett describes in frequent asides to the audience. In those moments, the stage goes black and she steps into a nightmarish netherworld inside a stark red frame made of flashing LED lights, recounting an apocalypse (or apocalypses?) featuring floods, evacuations, mass starvation, and entire countries transformed into blackened wastelands. Is Mrs. Jarrett a hardy survivor? A delusional lunatic? A gifted sci-fi storyteller? Or just a woman expressing acute anxiety about modern afflictions, heightened all the way into absurdity?
Like much of Churchill’s work, Escaped Alone eschews easy answers. At 78, she’s inarguably one of Britain’s greatest living playwrights, and this particular work, her newest, is funny, charming, and alarming, encapsulating an impossible amount into its brisk 55-minute running time. The fractured, occasionally abstract conversation of the four women, and the contrast of their casually mundane garden party with the horrors Mrs. Jarrett recounts, points to Samuel Beckett; the repeated references to birds bring to mind Churchill’s dark 1994 eco-fairytale, The Skriker. But Escaped Alone also feels indubitably of its moment, with references to mindless masses numbed by iPhones and TV cooking contests. There’s some discussion of a “trigger” word; by finding solace and safety in their communal space, the four women are, whether or not they know it, indulging in a kind of post-apocalyptic self-care. Not to mention the nightmarish visions Mrs. Jarrett spells out, some of which are a degree too close to reality for comfort.
The production, directed by James McDonald and exquisitely acted, unfolds within a square box onstage, dressed to resemble a serene but unfussy garden. A shed sits off to the right, ivy climbs over the back wall, a yellow hose rests on the lawn. Periodically, as the women converse, there are familiar sounds in the background: traffic passing by, children playing. Sally (Deborah Findlay) is good-natured and eager, Lena (Kika Markham) is more reserved, Vi (June Watson) cheerfully outgoing. They interrupt and finish each other’s thoughts. Their easy harmony is best represented in one moment where, spontaneously, they launch into a perfect rendition of a 1963 hit by The Crystals, “Da Doo Ron Ron.”
Mrs. Jarrett’s stories, which recur with comic frequency, thrust the audience into an uncertain liminal space, and offer their own barbed humor. In one story, rocks crash down onto a country and survivors move into communities underground; in other, flooding forces cities onto rooftops, where people catch pigeons with fishing nets. In a third, Churchill skewers modern culture, with Mrs. Jarrett detailing how “the hunger began when eighty percent of food was diverted to TV programs. Commuters watched breakfast on iPlayer on their way to work. Smartphones were distributed by charities when rice ran out, so the dying could watch cooking.” The obese, she explains, “sold slices of themselves,” and mushrooms were “traded for urine.” The absurd anecdotes offer caustic humor, but also a bleak vision of a society placated into mass starvation and degradation by lowbrow entertainment and lulz.
As the show progresses, the three other women on the lawn have their own monologues, delivered in a kind of limbo state where the light onstage dims, and the other characters appear to nod off. Sally voices a profound, distressing phobia of cats, while Vi is profoundly depressed and agoraphobic. Vi, who murdered her husband when she “accidentally” found a knife in her hand, is now uncomfortable in kitchens, and estranged from her son after six years in prison. That these honest, offhand expressions of anxiety appear to go unheard by the others seems to be the point of the monologues. Mrs. Jarrett “escaped alone” into the garden. The comfort of community can’t entirely assuage the characters’ darkest fears.
Escaped Alone in some moments feels like a metaphor for the anxiety that accompanies technology—the flashing black “screen” that Mrs. Jarrett steps into for her monologues communicates the broad sense of disaster that emanates from TV screens and computers on a 24-hour basis. But it’s also deliberately ambiguous and surreal. Churchill declines to explain which world is “real,” or how any of these women have survived, putting the emphasis instead on the solace they find in their easy companionship—incomplete though it may be. It’s worth noting that simply writing a play featuring four women in their seventies without making it about their age is a reasonably subversive political act. Escaped Alone lacks the explicit feminism of Top Girls, or the topical satire of Serious Money, but its sense of female endurance resonates.
In 1962, when Brenda Bruce was rehearsing for the London premiere of Beckett’s Happy Days—a play in which a woman, Winnie, is buried up to her neck, plagued by insects, and scorched by the sun—Bruce asked Beckett where the show came from. He replied that the experiences Winnie endures struck him as the worst thing that could happen to anyone, adding, “And I thought who would cope with that and go down singing, only a woman.” The characters of Escaped Alone seem to have made it through the end of the world by similar means: simple resilience.