Garden Party

Garden Party

It’s teatime. Four women—Sally, Vi, Lena and Mrs. Jarrett—sit in a homey English garden, “nattering” (chatting) during a series of blue sky afternoons about their families, their neighbors, their former work lives, their health, their town, world affairs. The women, each about 70 years old, find laughter and solace in their gab sessions, particularly when they share a raucous rendition of Ray Charles’s “Hit the Road, Jack.”

And yet, as generations of Brits have known, even teatime can be full of dark subtext. Welcome to the surreal world of Caryl Churchill, arguably one of Britain’s greatest living postmodern playwrights, who, as usual, has something more subversive in mind than a simple celebration of elder sisterhood in her 2016 work Escaped Alone, running through March 30 at Yale Rep.

Each of Churchill’s characters carries a debilitating secret, which she shares, at varying moments, with her friends. Sally, the host, has an obsessive-compulsive aversion to cats because their “bites are poison and the bite festers… I have to make sure I never think about a cat because if I do, I have to make sure there’s no cats and they could be anywhere… I have to go round the house and make sure all the windows are locked.” Lena struggles with agoraphobia and depression: “I sat on the bed this morning and didn’t stand up till lunchtime… Why see anyone? Why know about anyone?” For her part, Vi recoils at any discussion of kitchens, as she served six years in prison for murdering her husband in that room of their flat in front of her 12-year-old son, who only “phones sometimes, that’s the worst thing, even worse than the blood and thrashing about and what went wrong. That’s a horror but the horror goes on not seeing him.”

Mrs. Jarrett, who’s something of a stranger to these three women who she’s “seen before,” is invited into the garden after peering through Sally’s fence during an afternoon stroll. Her problem, she ultimately admits, is “terrible rage”—something the theater audience is well aware of by that point. She has routinely stepped out of the civilized discussion with her peers to deliver thunderous monologues about cataclysms of horrific—yet darkly satirical—proportions: villages buried by a devastating rockfall “paid for by senior executives”; an apocalyptic flood in which “sometimes children fell down the sewage chutes but others caught seagulls with kites”; a pernicious famine that “began when 80 percent of food was diverted to tv programmes.”

What exactly is Churchill on about, here? The 85-year-old playwright is no stranger to controversy, having taken on a number of dicey topics in her six-decade career. She earned her first of four Obie Awards with Cloud Nine (1979), which investigated the impact of the Victorian era’s colonialism and imperialism on sexual relationships. Serious Money (1987), a satire about the stock market, is written in rhyming couplets. She took on human cloning in A Number (2002) and the perils of xenophobia in Far Away (2000), which eerily presaged the consequences of 9/11.

Escaped Alone seems closest in theme to Far Away, though Far presents us with an apocalypse in process while Escaped gives us Mrs. Jarrett’s apocalyptic visions, leaving us to wonder whether they’re mere mad ravings or divine prophecies for our place and time or someone else’s. A clue may come from Churchill’s terse preface to the published version of her play, a quote repeated from and by a series of lone survivors of terrible calamities in the Book of Job, not to mention Moby Dick’s Ishmael: “I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”

Staging Escaped Alone must have been both challenging and liberating, as the play—at least the copy I’ve viewed—provides few stage directions, minimal character descriptions and scant references to timeframe and setting. As such, Yale’s production comes across as a masterclass in navigating ambiguity. Yale Rep resident director Liz Diamond keeps the play’s flow crisp and bracing, never losing sight of either the humor or horror in Churchill’s prose. While other productions have typically run 55 minutes, I’m told Diamond’s clocks in at an economical 47.

The actors—all Yale Rep veterans and all Beinecke Fellows at the Yale School of Drama this semester—make not just Ray Charles sing but also Churchill’s convoluted dialogues and whiplash monologues. Sandra Shipley, who plays the garrulous Sally, has appeared in productions of You Never Can Tell, The Way of the World, The Adventures of Amy Bock and Venus, in which she co-starred with Rita Wolf, the socially awkward Lena. Mary Lou Rosato, the persecuted and sorrowful Vi, has appeared in Elizabeth: Almost by Chance a Woman and The Alchemist, while LaTonya Borsay as Mrs. Jarrett may seem familiar to Rep audiences who saw Death of a Salesman and dance of the holy ghosts.

The set design is a study in contrasts between a bucolic garden complete with the sounds of chirping birds and, it should be noted, more than 20 live plants and the chaos that surrounds Mrs. Jarrett in her periods of rage. In those moments, the stage goes dark, explosions sound and a curved screen at the back, normally home to a lolling late-day sky, vibrates with overwhelming light and distortion. And while a tea tray sits in view beginning to end, no one ever drinks, putting a final surrealist touch on Mrs. Jarrett’s last and simplest declaration: “I thanked them for the tea and went home.”

Escaped Alone
Yale Repertory Theatre – 1120 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Through 3/30/24
(203) 432-1234

Written by Patricia Grandjean. Images photographed by Joan Marcus and provided courtesy of Yale Repertory Theatre.

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