This is the same Caryl Churchill who, in the many plays she's written over the last 40 years, has more often gazed with basilisk eye on the past and the present -- the writer who brushes aside the idea of the well made play, preferring to regard each idea that flits through her roiling mind as a chance to tell a story in a new way, to present images that startle and sear, to deploy language that paradoxically illuminates as it obfuscates.
The Churchill imagination is in fierce -- if not fullest -- bloom in the seductive Far Away. Even before this 55-minute play-as-wake-up-alarm begins, there are hints that what's about to unfold will not be tonic. Set designer Ian MacNeil has dropped a show scrim for the audience to contemplate: It depicts a landscape that looks, at first glance, to be painted by a television art instructor, one of those chatty fellows who dispenses encouraging words while daubing bland hills and cottages onto his canvas. But a closer assessment of the kitschy scene reveals that the light hitting a lone white house is late afternoon sun -- autumn sun, at that. The crescent moon above also suggests something ending, pared away. The threat to this bucolic calm is underscored by sound designer Paul Arditti's non-stop loop of birdsong and running water, cluttered by vaguely disturbing static.
This sense of psychological uncertainty is deepened when the screen is lifted, creakily, to expose a dark room (Rick Fisher has designed the ominous lighting) in which are placed a table and, nearby, a chair, occupied by Harper (Frances McDormand in yet another carefully wrought portrayal). A girl, Joan (the unaffected and intelligent Alexa Eisenstein), dangling a mechanical toy from one hand, arrives to talk with the woman who's shaken herself from a half-swoon. Joan says she can't sleep. Sent back to bed after some comforting words, the girl returns shortly and instigates a conversation with Harper, the aunt in whose charge she's been put during her parents' absence. (They're never mentioned again.) In fits and starts, Joan admits that, in the minutes between her first and second visits, she slipped out a bedroom window and observed her uncle doing odd things. As the activities she describes become increasingly grim and involve mistreatment of adults and children in a garden shack, the aunt offers a series of superficially placating explanations.
Abruptly, Churchill ends the opening scene and starts the second, in which Joan, with her hair pulled back as before and still in possession of the toy, is approximately 10 years older (now played by Marin Ireland). She's toiling at a workbench alongside a hyperkinetic young man, Todd (the wired Chris Messina, who's everywhere this season). They banter awkwardly and, as they do, begin constructing comically elaborate hats. An industrial horn blasts occasionally, interrupting them at their task. Each time they resume, the hats have become even more elaborate and Joan and Todd have become increasingly intrigued with one another.
At this point, Churchill shows the audience what the hats are being prepared for, and their purpose is disclosed in a coup de théâtre that this review will not detail further. Perhaps it's enough to say that a hat parade ensues, during which designer Catherine Zuber rises to the kind of artistic challenge that costumers pray will come their way at least once in a career. When the march -- which calls for more extras than are usually seen in an Off-Broadway production -- has concluded, the audience is at last tipped off to the full horror of Churchill's vision. It becomes manifest that the playwright sees a world in which paranoia is so rampant that people have succumbed almost catatonically to it. In the fourth and last of Churchill's scenes, when Chris has come to Harper's house (where Joan is hiding out), the dialogue includes the following typically cryptic but amusingly sinister exchange:
TODD: ...the Latvian dentists have been doing good work in Cuba. They've a house outside Havana.
HARPER: But Latvia has been sending pigs to Sweden. The dentists are linked to international dentistry, and that's where their loyalty lies, with dentists in Dar-es-Salaam.
While the country wherein Far Away is set isn't identified, the above lines indicate that Churchill doesn't mean it to be a remote, parched patch of the globe. It's Everycountry. Furthermore, even though she wrote the play before September 11 (it premiered at London's Royal Court in 2000 and clocked in at 45 minutes then), she's indicting every country where terrorists are now increasingly feared and/or in which they reside. Churchill is shouting that, due to our overriding fears, we all have the capacity to become terrorists. The work could be used in support of anti-Iraq-war arguments; it calls on concerned citizens to examine very closely where they may be headed if they're not careful.
Flares like these have been sent up before, of course. With Far Away, Churchill places herself towards the end of a line that includes, in literature, Dante's bleak predictions of what the afterlife holds for errant humans and, in art, Hieronymus Bosch's Last Judgment -- as well as, more recently, Dinos and Jake Chapman's Hell, a set of museum showcases in which toy-soldier armies clash with bloody results. She also follows Harold Pinter's 1988 Mountain Language, another brief (20-minute) piece about the dehumanization of war as played out in an unspecified land. All of this is by way of saying that, while Churchill has fashioned a mind-blowing look into a possibly damned future, she has only traced her predecessors' bootprints. What she hasn't done is taken the next step. She's allied herself with Poe and Kafka in their dire understanding of human short-sightedness and timidity but doesn't offer any unexpected insights on human nature. That's the sole flaw of the piece.
Given the stunning allegory presented by Churchill, maybe it's greedy to ask for more than a reiterated warning -- especially when Stephen Daldry, who previously heightened the terror implicit in J.B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls, has directed such a hair-raising realization of Churchill's script and when the actors have found painful truths in their roles. (Gina Rose alternates with Alexa Eisenstein as the young Joan.) With Far Away, Caryl Churchill takes the phrase "short but sweet" and reworks it as "short but devastating."