Pillsbury House struggles to deliver
Also see Michelle's review of Romeo & Juliet
Small Pillsbury House Theatre has earned a reputation for staging ambitious work with panache and passion, pieces like Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, Perestroika and, last season, a superb Jesus Hopped the A Train. On the opening night of Caryl Churchill's hour-long trilogy, Far Away, I could sense the actors' will to give this disquieting play its visceral charge. In Part I, they succeed, as a creeping sense of horror electrifies the action, but the voltage ebbs in Part II and fails to surge sufficiently in Part III.
And that's a pity at a time in our national lives that makes Far Away's themes frighteningly resonant.
The play takes an unconventional look at how an ongoing, undefined war gives rise to the escalation of mass fear and to existential horrors. As the play progresses through its three scenes, the chronic state of the war leads to its acceptance and to the three characters' complicity in war crimes. By play's end, they have internalized unrelieved fear to such an extent that the extreme polarization they express achieves satiric heights.
Playwright Churchill's incremental release of disturbing details in the mouth of Young Joan in the opening scene held me spell-bound. Eleven-year-old Sage Coy plays Young Joan with presence and control. She comes downstairs to tell her aunt that she can't sleep and admits to climbing out of her bedroom window to investigate a child's scream. Aunt Harper strokes and reassures her niece. The girl tells of the whimpering she heard in her uncle's locked van; then she relates a detail of what she saw her uncle doing in the shed. Her aunt cozily rationalizes why he did this. After a pause, Joan reveals an even more disturbing detail. Aunt Harper has pat, if inconsistent, answers to explain everything that Joan witnessed.
Laura Esping plays Aunt Harper as a bland and pleasant woman in the opening scene, but I longed for a glimpse through facial expression or gesture, of Harper's inner feelings, some hint of discomfort at the rationalizations she trots out to account for her husband's activities. In the third vignette, some ten years or so after the opening scene, Esping's Harper is a bent, fearful and emotionally ragged woman, but I remained conscious throughout her frightened rant that this was an actor, playing a part. Yet I know from Jesus Hopped the A Train that Esping is well-able to fully inhabit the characters she plays.
After the powerful opening scene, the middle series of vignettes, set in a hat factory, feel anticlimactic, and director Noel Raymond's slowed pacing doesn't help. Joan, now a young woman played by Sandra Struthers, begins work as a hat-maker and falls in love with Todd, (Matt Guidry,) the young man at the work bench next to hers; both roles feel somewhat underplayed.
Joan and Todd create bizarrely extravagant hats for state parades. Only when one of the parades shuffles on stage to Andrew C. Mayer's effective sound design and in Mike Wangen's haunting lighting, do you intuit that this is a totalitarian state, and that these two hapless young people are contributing to the system of oppression.
In Part Three, the state machine is so pervasive that crocodiles, deer and butterflies take sides, ospreys are spies and the political leanings of a river cannot be trusted.
Churchill's Far Away bursts the bounds of conventional theater and challenges directors, actors and audiences to understand its dark premonition. Raymond and her cast's interpretation felt too tentative on opening night, but I hope it might yet gain power during its run.
In a time of curtailed civil rights in the name of the endless "War Against Terror," we need Far Away to shine its warning at full wattage.
Far Away March 5 - April 3. Wednesdays - Saturdays 7:30 p.m., $15:00. (Wednesdays, pay what you can.) Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501, Chicago Avenue south, Minneapolis. Tickets: 612-825-0459.