Far Away

Next Theatre Company

Tony Kushner has declared that he’s “deeply envious” of Caryl Churchill’s 2000 play Far Away–and he should be. Even the most polished specimens of his trademark logorrhea don’t come close to capturing the terrible beauty of her 50-minute dark fantasia on global themes.

Far Away–now receiving its Chicago premiere at Next Theatre–recalls both Mad Forest, Churchill’s 1990 portrait of civil war in Romania, and her 1994 The Skriker, a grotesque fairy tale about a vengeful shape-shifter. The language here is not as opaque and pseudo-Joycean as in the latter play, but Churchill’s images do suggest a late-career Goya painting like Saturn Devouring One of His Children: she’s created a world where the weather, all the species of the earth, and the laws of physics are entwined in all-consuming combat.

The story takes place in an unnamed setting at an unknown time. In the first act, ten-year-old Joan tells her aunt, Harper, about a strange shrieking noise she heard outside her aunt and uncle’s home. Harper tries to put a soothing spin on the story–first she says it must have been an owl, then a party thrown by the girl’s uncle. But once it becomes clear that Joan has seen him herding people from a truck into a bloody shed, where he strikes them with an iron rod, Harper swears her to secrecy. “You’re part of a big movement now to make things better. You can be proud of that. You can look at the stars and think here we are in our little bit of space, and I’m on the side of the people who are putting things right.”

In the second act, Joan is grown up and beginning her first day of work in a milliner’s sweatshop, creating fanciful headgear alongside clean-cut coworker Todd. He talks about watching “the trials” and guardedly complains about the conditions of their employment, which he attributes to some vague conspiracy. The two flirt, spar, and compare their creative efforts, intended to be used in what they call “the parades.” The act’s deeply disturbing penultimate scene shows one of these rituals: ragged, dull-eyed prisoners, each wearing a spectacular hat (one is shaped like a pagoda), are marched center stage three at a time, forced to turn in a circle to show off their hats, then marched offstage to be shot. In the act’s last scene, as Joan’s romance with Todd appears to blossom, she’s girlishly excited that her creation in this genocidal fashion show was not burned with the body but chosen for “the museum.” Here Churchill deftly evokes a world where language, love, work, and art have all been corrupted in service of a perverted sense of justice and order.

The third act takes place many years later and returns the action to Harper’s farm. While Joan sleeps offstage, Todd and Harper trade notes on the shifting alliances in a worldwide conflagration. The enemies list includes Portuguese car salesmen, Russian swimmers, Thai butchers, and Latvian dentists as well as the beasts of the earth and air. Harper tersely notes, “Mallards are not a good waterbird. They commit rape, and they’re on the side of the elephants and the Koreans.” Inevitably there are echoes of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, but I also thought of a line from James Thurber’s 1939 antiwar parable, “The Last Flower”: “Emboldened by the pitiful condition of the former lords of the earth, rabbits descended upon them.” By play’s end, a disoriented Joan is wondering, since “the Bolivians are working with gravity…who will mobilize darkness and silence?” The unspoken answer is that those forces have already been mobilized and will not be stopped until the world is destroyed.

Director Lisa Portes isn’t quite up to the challenges of Churchill’s intentionally anticlimactic final act, with its verbal gymnastics detailing absurdist paranoia. And Portes’s decision to add a final wordless coda, which might be read as a metaphor for hope and healing, cheats the play of its bruising nihilism.

In fact, there are problems with emotional tone and pacing throughout this production, though Portes does allow Churchill’s humor to come through. The physical staging could hardly be better, especially in the note-perfect parade scene. And Brian Sidney Bembridge’s clever set–a series of sliding doors open to reveal stark dioramalike settings–moves the action in a dreamlike manner from deceptively warm farmhouse parlor to harsh black-and-white factory to windblown, shattered barn.

The performances are somewhat problematic, however. In the first act Karen Aldridge as Joan and Wendy Robie as Harper overplay the foreshadowing in their lines–a lighter touch would have made the eventual revelations more shocking. Using Aldridge as both the young and the older Joan is a wise choice, and the actress largely avoids the annoying habits of adults playing children. She also manages to make the grown-up Joan ridiculously self-absorbed but not hateful. Robie, however, rarely delivers a line without first arching her brows, pursing her lips into a rictus of shock, and otherwise Acting when a chirpy, understated tone would have been twice as terrifying. Her performance in the final act is markedly better, as she tries to determine what Todd knows about the world’s changing alliances. Dan Kuhlman’s portrayal of Todd is mostly on the surface, but I think that was Churchill’s intent: in the second act, the play’s most successful, he and Aldridge counterbalance the terror of the parade with their sitcomlike effervescent banter.

Churchill’s terrifying ability to normalize ludicrous extremes of self-

involvement has always been part of her genius. And Next Theatre, despite a few stumbles, deserves credit for honoring the surreal horror of her world, a world where rationality and beauty have been co-opted by fear and hatred. In that world, the time to stem the tide of destruction is over, long gone and far away.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.