The horrors of the present moment may at last have outpaced those in the fevered imagination of Caryl Churchill, the prolific 81-year-old British playwright who for at least half her life has been without equal when it comes to formal daring. Escaped Alone, which first appeared at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2016 and makes its D.C.-area premiere at Signature Theatre, is an apocalyptic primal scream that stymies the commercial calculus of theatergoing among its other riddles, running less than an hour long. That’s more than sufficient time for you to become unmoored in the tempest of Churchill’s latest nightmare—well, not her latest; she’s written another half-dozen plays in the three years since this one—because she appears to have lost all patience with the conventional elements of drama like plot or character. She’s advanced into the realm of pure abstraction here, despite the serene setup: Three middle-aged women—Lena, Vi, and Sally—are chatting and occasionally singing at a garden tea party when a fourth, Mrs. Jarrett, happens by and decides to join them.
At regular intervals, the trio—Brigid Cleary, Catherine Flye, and Helen Hedman, all convincing as longtime acquaintances—will freeze in place and get tucked away behind a curtain as a mournful music cue plays and Mrs. Jarrett, played stoically by Valerie Leonard, steps through the fourth wall. Standing in front of the curtain, Mrs. Jarrett unfolds to us an increasingly absurd sequence of apocalyptic events that have reordered the world—the Book of Revelations as translated by Dr. Seuss.
“Some of the cancers began in the lungs; others in the fingertips or in the laptops,” she intones. “Cars were traded for used meat. Children fell asleep in class and did not wake up,” she continues later. Still later, she adds “The illness started when children drank sugar developed from monkeys.” When she gets around to recalling the day the rice ran out and cell phones were distributed so the starving could watch videos of other people eating, those of us who have always shunned reality TV and cooking shows as dystopian abundance porn will feel briefly vindicated. But for me, at least, it’s a purely intellectual exercise. You don’t feel the dread of these cascading calamities the way, for example, that anyone who saw Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play at Woolly Mammoth seven years ago or Oil at Olney Theatre Center earlier this year did.
Maybe Mrs. Jarrett has suffered too much to do more than bear disaffected witness. Her remove is clearly a choice rather than any inadequacy on the part of Leonard’s performance. Whether her monologues are prophecies or recollections of trials past is a mystery, as is why the end of the world has not, so much as we see, deprived these three women of any of their afternoon comforts. In the boxy diorama of Paige Hathaway’s backyard set, a plain old domestic one-act could be unfolding as the women discuss their families, their regrets, and their infirmities. Cleary, Fly, and Hedman have a warm rapport with one another; it’s pleasant to spend time with them and upsetting to contemplate them being devoured by subterranean mole-men or poached in boiling seas. But here again, Churchill’s poetic ending of the world plays second fiddle to the one we may be living through.
Signature seems to have anticipated that a number of their patrons will emerge from this brief, barbed play confused and unsatisfied, and so they have invited the audience to stay for “Tea & Conversation” afterward, with the house supplying the tea, the biscuits, and some kindling for the conversation in the form of a promotional video for the show wherein director Holly Twyford and the members of the cast all praise Churchill’s longevity and brilliance and talk about how rewarding it was for them to try to make sense of Churchill’s punctuation-free script. The video also features comments from Studio Theatre founder Joy Zinoman, who has directed many Churchill plays, including Far Away and A Number, both, like this one, under an hour long. (Twyford performed in Zinoman’s 2004 production of Far Away.) Maybe these brief Churchill puzzles would be best produced in pairs, the better to fill one of the dwindling number of evenings we have left.
To Nov. 3 at 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. $40–$90. (703) 820-9771. sigtheatre.org.