Four women find solace and release over tea in WAM Theatre's upcoming reading of Caryl Churchill's "Escaped Alone'
WEST STOCKBRIDGE — The apocalypse is playing in an English garden.
Three women are sitting in the sun, drinking tea, as they have for many years. Today a neighbor walks by and they invite her in. And look over the edge of the world.
Caryl Churchill is known as one of Britain's greatest living playwrights, and her new work, "Escaped Alone," will finish WAM Theatre's 2018 Fresh Takes series with a staged reading, 3:30 p.m. Sunday at the Old Town Hall in West Stockbridge.
Churchill had written close on 40 plays before this one made its U.S. debut last year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She has just turned 80, and here she has written an entire cast of characters for women of her generation.
WAM's artistic director Kristen van Ginhoven has rarely seen a role for an elder woman, and those few are one-dimensional. It is even more rare, she said, to see a full-bodied woman on stage, with the vibrance and color a full life has brought.
"It's more than rare," said Joan Coombs, who plays Vi. "It's extraordinary. look at the canon, from Greek to contemporary, and there are very few roles for women over 50. To have four — the word `rare' is not dramatic enough."
These four [also in the cast are Nancy Rothman and Denise Walker] are witty, funny and deep.
"They have seen a lot, lived a lot, experienced a lot," she said, "and that's all in their memory banks."
And they are not stereotypes — not the sweet grandmother or the grieving widow.
Not the crone in the corner or the mean landlady or someone's mother who dies in the first act, agreed Eileen Schuyler, who plays Lena.
Here, they're at the center. They are complex, Coombs said. They are struggling. They are talking as women talk at the heart of friendship, attachment and connection through good times and bad.
They begin quietly, talking idly with saucers in their laps. But Mrs. J disrupts them. She will break into the conversation with vivid and disturbing glimpses of chaos and disintegration. Desperate men and women survive on rooftops in floods, and children catch seagulls with kites. Chemicals spread through keyboards, and starving commuters watch meals on their smartphones.
"To me they are terrified stream-of-consciousness," Coombs said. "Caryl Churchill has plugged into all the fears in the world and just let rip. When she is writing I'm sure her hand does not leave what she's writing with until the monologue ends."
"Mrs. J's monologues are deep and disturbing," van Ginhoven said. "These are topics we're desperate to talk about and we don't know how — the rage and horror go beyond polite chatter."
At the beginning, the women around Mrs. J stiffen and shrink away and and reach for their tea. But by the end, they are emboldened.
They talk with a widening range — over time travel and alternate universes, violence and assault, estrangement and humor and insult, birds in flight and naked fear.
"They're interacting with calamities of global politics It's revolutionary to me," said Talya Kingston, WAM's associate artistic director. "Churchill reflects on the anxiety of our times. We're getting on with our lives, cooking lunches, taking the dog for a walk, and we're bombarded with external news."
Churchill wrote the play in her 70s, before Brexit, before the U.S. presidential election, and Mrs. J's fears can feel eerily real today — water shortages, starvation, hurricanes clearing shanty towns while airsick families take selfies.
"Churchill doesn't tell you what to think," Kingston said. "She opens questions."
She gives few stage directions, leaving actors room, and she rarely talks about her plays. She has not given an interview since the 1990s, van Ginhoven said. But in 1963, in Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique," Churchill said: "I was fed up with the situation I found myself in in the 1960s. It seemed claustrophobic. Having started out with undefined idealistic assumptions about the kind of life we could lead, we had drifted into something quite conventional "
She wanted to invade that middle-class life with sharp comments on colonial violence, environmental catastrophes, prejudice. Mrs. J speaks in that voice.
"There are not many productions of this play," van Ginhoven said, "and they often have Mrs. J speaking separately (from the other women in these moments). I want to explore what happens when she stays with them."
As Mrs. J shares her fears, she gives the other women freedom to express their own. They navigate a conversation in broken phrases and unfinished thoughts.
Vi, who has been away for years, slowly reveals the desperation that drove her away, the dislocation of coming back to a place that has changed, and a longing to connect with her son.
Sally sees consequences in her actions that could have saved lives or lost them.
"What resonates for me in early readings is how Lena is alone," Schuyler said. "It's difficult to have the energy, spirit, desire, courage to leave the house at all — she made it to this gathering, but it wasn't easy. It's easier to be passive and let the world go by, not to make effort, spiritual or physical — and that's a defeat. And I understand that. I'm a recent widow, and getting out there to talk to other people can be hard. She talks about birds and her job and underlying that, I feel her hiding out."
By the end, all four women have shared a deep-seated rage and shame, van Ginhoven said. And that sharing brings them to community. They give each other safety and solace. And they feel release.
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