In the afternoon light, four older women sit in a cozy backyard, their teacups on a small table. They are three longtime friends joined by a new person: a neighbor. All speak in snippets, creating a feeling of familiarity or eavesdropping. Then the neighbor, Mrs. Jarrett (Jacklyn Maddux), stands, steps forward, and describes the way the world was destroyed by rocks.
British playwright Caryl Churchill’s work has a reputation. Some people—like me—adore its surreal plotlines and weighty metaphors. Some read it in college and remember it as important, if confusing. Some have heard it’s weird. Churchill’s best-known plays (like her Obie-award winning works Cloud 9 and Top Girls) are boldly written, densely packed perfections that leave audiences spinning with what was that all about? (In the case of Cloud 9 and Top Girls: Colonialism or feminism, respectively.) You either like that feeling or you don’t, but none can deny her prowess or her long, fruitful career.
Though Churchill achieved prominence in the ’60s and ’80s, she’s never stopped being prolific and relevant: Escaped Alone is as strong as any of her work, and it debuted in 2016. Due to its contemporary nature, there’s a desire to find exact world events and figures in the piece, but Churchill has gone a different route. She’s captured a modern mood: our anxious obsession with the end of the world.
Despite Shaking the Tree and director Samantha Van Der Merwe’s reputations for inventive staging, Escaped Alone doesn’t stray from the backyard of Churchill’s script. Their fingerprints can instead be found on the work’s impeccable timing and lighting, and the artful designs that backdrop each of Mrs. Jarret’s apocalypses: rocks, floods, chemicals, famine. (The list continues.) Poets, language lovers, and speculative fiction fans will be drawn in by the meaningful and frequently hilarious digressions. Any line could be a story in itself.
As the four women unpack their stories and anxieties, it becomes harder to judge which reality is the more fearful interlude. The sun goes low and the stage fills with a difficult-to-describe foreboding. The evening chill blows. One of the most magical aspects of Shaking the Tree’s Escaped Alone is likely coincidental: Since the play barely clocks in at an hour, after the show, the audience steps out into the rosy magic of a mid-spring sunset, and it’s as if they’re stepping directly back into that anxious, cozy backyard.