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The fresh-faced young woman and the strapping young man are making hats—big, mad hats with felt and frills and springs and things—and for now you don’t know what they’re making hats for or what the hat-making means or where the hat-makers are going to wind up. But you do know, if only because this is the second scene in Caryl Churchill’s hugely disturbing Far Away, that these two aren’t taking you anywhere you’ve ever been. And yes, when you get there, less than 50 minutes after you sit down at the Studio Theatre, you’ll feel the hair standing up on the back of your neck.
Ordinary moments give way, haltingly and then in a dam-breaking rush, to images and exchanges in which the surface familiarity of a thing—a courtship, a kitchen-table conversation, the clank-clank-clank progression of a chain gang—belies a vast, dark, head-spinning strangeness. It’s Orwellian territory, this, a place where an elderly aunt’s late-night reassurances ring hollow to a wide-eyed child who knows better, a world in which small acts of grace, of tenderness, of nobility, survive amid horrors so big-picture they’ve become invisible to those who live and work and love among them. It’s a universe so much at war with itself that the beasts of the field—even the heavens and the Earth—have chosen sides.
It begins at that kitchen table, at 2 a.m., with that polite, collected young girl (Simone Grossman): “I can’t sleep.”
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“It’s the strange bed,” comes the reply from the old aunt she’s staying with in the countryside, and for two or three minutes they trade such banalities—it’s the cold, the absence of the cat, or some such detail amiss that’s keeping young Joan awake. But it’s not, of course: She’s been outside, curious as any child in an unfamiliar place, and she’s seen something she shouldn’t have. Churchill concerns herself, between the lines of conversational trivialities, with the awakening of innocents to the hard truths of a world in which authority figures can’t be trusted: That aunt (Mikel Sarah Lambert) might be trying, with her evasions and her half-truths and her transparent lies, to protect her charge. Or she might simply be trying to cover up a gruesome project she’s all too complicit in.
Or she might be doing something else entirely: Part of Churchill’s stubborn brilliance subsists in her refusal to spoon-feed audiences predigested answers. The brutally political playwright began her career with radio plays, and her texts, spare as bone on the surface, turn out to be black-hole dense once you get closer. Many directors, many actors, many writers do wonders with the pregnant pause, but that seems an insanely impoverished term for what Joy Zinoman and her cast do with Churchill and her dark materials: This is a richly conceived, cleanly drawn, terrifyingly realized hell of the imagination, and a hundred hideous possibilities wait here between every pair of words.
The vagueness is no less pervasive years later, when the lights come up on an older Joan (Holly Twyford), who’s now the new girl at the hat factory—a place visualized with witty, mechanized precision by Studio designers Debra Booth (the clean, functional sets), Michelle Elwyn (the expressive vocabulary of props), and Michael Lincoln (the lights, subtle and startling by turns).
What hats have to do with anything, why they’re such a prime career choice, becomes apparent only by degrees, as Joan and her older co-worker Todd (Matthew Montelongo) bicker and banter, talking of college majors and lunch spots and labor-management conflicts and TV habits and housing arrangements and—wait, there’s the first hint that their world, so seemingly like our own, has something of the fun-house mirror about it: “I stay up ’til 4 every morning watching the trials,” Todd says, and Joan replies, “I’m getting a room in a subway.”
As the quick-cut factory scenelets click by, a relationship blooms amid the small oddnesses, with all the usual sweetnesses and jealousies. (Todd: “I noticed you looking at that fair boy’s hat. I hope you told him it was derivative.”) He works up the courage to expose the management corruption he’s been alluding to with typical Churchillian crypticism; she wins a prize with her first hat; and we get a look, in a sequence chilling enough to set teeth chattering, at the grim Easter Parade for which their millinery efforts are intended. It would do the play and the production an injustice to describe the procession in any detail; suffice it to say that the array of hats is audacious—you’ll wonder what Studio spent on them, at least until you discover the program note indicating that they’re from the New York production that starred Frances McDormand a few years back—and that Studio gets at the scene’s bleak, bitter essence with a program-book quote from Tony Kushner: “Without research, which no one will ever bother to undertake, neither the circumstances nor the attitude of the maker towards her or his hat is finally knowable.”
With this surpassingly ridiculous central sequence, this chronicle of hat-making and small talk and vast evil, Churchill indicts you, me, our friends and our families, and everyone who’s ever retreated into small comforts and parochial concerns because the big issues, the global injustices, are too complicated or too damn frightening to contemplate. It’s bold, fearless, breathtaking stuff, and Studio presents it magnificently.
And then, with another leap forward in time, Churchill shows us her blackest nightmare yet: a picture of what will become of us if we keep insisting that what happens “far away”—on the other side of the world, in the smoky rooms and marble halls of our own capitals—isn’t any of our concern. It’s a few years later, and we’re back in Aunt Harper’s kitchen, talking of wasps and butterflies and other dangers. Todd and Joan have come here, separately, to hide momentarily from the war that has apparently consumed everything outside these walls—“The cats have come in on the side of the French,” we learn, and the mallards “commit rape, and they’re on the side of the elephants and the Koreans”—and the old woman voices a question to which the answer is all too apparent: “Is this a place of safety?”
The truth is that it never has been—not Harper’s house, not our house, not her world, not ours. We want to think it is, but we humans have a nearly limitless capacity for horror—for inflicting it, yes, but for absorbing it, too, and and for responding in kind. Todd’s chilling lines about his “boring jobs,” Aunt Harper’s steely, suspicious questions about where his loyalties lie, Joan’s positively apocalyptic final monologue—all of them suggest that our world, once you grapple with the ugly poetry of it, is a world built on pretty hats and prettier lies, the diversions and deceptions of a people who can’t bear to tell themselves the truth. CP