Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of Our Town
Churchill began writing plays in the 1960s, gaining widespread attention in 1979 for her scalding comedy Cloud Nine and in 1982 for Top Girls, which painted a caustic look at the price women pay for claiming their rightful share of success in the world. Churchill archly uses satire and cynicism to cast a critical eye at her subjects, and especially in her more recent work, often casts off traditional dramatic structure in favor of fractured scenes that form a mosaic of themes and ideas.
The two recent works Frank Theatre has chosen to present would, by themselves, be impressive but small-plate fare; in tandem they make for a full and satisfying dramatic meal. In Escaped Alone a middle-aged woman, Mrs. Jarrett (Cheryl Willis), peers over a flower-strewn trellis and sees three older women seated on folding chairs on an astroturf lawn. A center table bears a tea service, ready for civilized consumption. Mrs. Jarrett joins the three and tries to fit herself into their conversation, which consists of non-sequiturs, self-absorbed ruminations over past events, and veiled confessions. Most of the chatter seems to be of little consequence and of questionable truth. However, we do find some darkness within each of the three charming ladies. Sally (Barbra Berlovitz) has a morbid dread of cats, Lena (Janis Hardy) is stricken by anxiety whenever she ventures out of her home, and Vi (Maria Asp) is not quite sure if her impulsive actions long ago actually constituted murder.
At recurrent intervals Mrs. Jarrett rises, to pronounce the progress of devastation engulfing the earth: disease, famine, floods, fires. She delivers these with the cadence of a newscaster who has been told these will be the very last newscasts for all eternity. Then, as if all that doom and gloom was beside the point, Mrs. Jarrett rejoins the three others in their inwardly focused, harmless banter. There are some delightful moments shared by these four women, including a rollicking rendition of a popular song from their younger day, performed with pep as they strain to remember the lyrics.
Here We Go tells a story in reverse, spread over three scenes. In the first, the four actors from Escaped Alone are joined by a fifth, Charla Marie Bailey. All five are dressed for an "occasion" and enter with wine glass in hand. From their remarks we soon realize they are at a memorial for a gentleman who has recently passed away. Their level of discourse rises and falls between appreciations of his finer qualities and speculations about his tawdry affairs.
In the second and third scenes we encounter scene we meet the deceased gentleman (Patrick Bailey), alone as he turbulently faces the uncertainties of what comes next. Lastly, we go back in further time to the horrible conditions that preceded his demise, with the man and a caregiver (Charla Marie Bailey) who silently provides an approximation of support, being both sympathetic and dutiful.
What either of these plays means will depend a lot of what experience, concerns and beliefs the viewer carries into the theater, but there is clearly a contrast made between the drivel of polite conversation among humans and the terrible things that await humans, whether as a species or as single beings. It sounds rather depressing, but in fact it is not, or at least it need not be. For within both plays are seeds of inspiration to dig deeply into life while we live it and not succumb to a life of manners, nor to talking about others' lives rather than living your own.
Directed with spectacular precision by Wendy Knox, all six actors are superb. The four in Escaped Alone deliver back-and forth chatter, full of interruptions and retorts, one moment a character drifting off into the concerns of their own memory, then snapping back into the ping-ponging conversation with the others as if their minds had never left. Particularly impressive is Barbra Berlovitz as Sally, describing the terror that cats impose on her life, and Janis Hardy's descent, as Lena, into a maelstrom of terrible rage. Maria Asp is nearly adorable as Vi, fondly recollecting her days as a haircutter in between piecing together that business about a murder in her past.
The ensemble continues their stellar work in Here We Go, with Patrick Bailey adding a stunning rant, flinging himself about the stage, prostrating himself one moment, cracking wise another, with the manic energy of Robin Williams in his prime. In the final scene, his methodical patience, along with Charla Marie Bailey as his caretaker, displays these actors' extreme discipline and commitment.
Mike Wangen has designed lighting that effectively distinguishes the differing segments of each play, and Dan Dukich's sound design brings a subliminal backdrop, especially to the final scene, with the beeps of hospital monitors and sing-song pages calling this or that doctor barely audible. Kathy Kohl has devised costumes that depict the ladies in Here We Go as down-at-heel matrons trying to look their best, while their styles as hectoring mourners in Escaped Alone are sedately stylish.
Given the urgency of addressing such rising tides as climate change, unfettered spread of gun violence, and rising inequality between the top earners and everyone else, it would be wonderful for the ladies on lawn chairs in Escaped Alone to snap out of their isolated memories and ruminations and pay attention to Mrs. Jarrett's warnings. Then again, they are old and weary, and isn't it too late for them to make a difference? Might it have made a difference for the gentleman in Here We Go to reflect on the virtues by which he lived? But perhaps he did, only to find that the laid-out belief systems of life are of no use once life has drained out of us.
Churchill does not make it easy for us to take heart. Yet, Wendy Knox and her terrific cast and creative team manage to inject hope into these two plays. Perhaps it is our capacity to consider these challenges and face them with intellect and ethical bearings that lift us up from the bleak moors and find a way to live in the sky above.
Presented by Frank Theatre, Escaped Alone and Here We Go run through September 29, 2019, at Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia Street, Saint Paul MN. Ticket prices are: adults - $30.00; students and seniors: $25.00. For tickets and information, visit franktheatre.org or call 612-724-3760.
Playwright: Caryl Churchill; Director: Wendy Knox; Set Design: Joe Stanley; Costume Design: Kathy Kohl; Lighting Design: Mike Wangen; Sound Design: Dan Dukich; Stage Manager: Glenn Klapperich.
Cast: Escaped Alone - Maria Asp (Vi), Barbra Berlovitz (Sally), Janis Hardy (Lena), Cheryl Willis (Mrs. Jarrett). Here We Go - Maria Asp, Charla Marie Bailey, Patrick Bailey, Barbra Berlovitz, Janis Hardy, Cheryl Willis.