Caryl Churchill is hardly a household name, but for nearly 30 years this adventuresome British author has been writing groundbreaking plays that view society if not through a glass, darkly, then at least through a refracted lens that tilts the world more than a little askew.
Her current play, Far Away, is receiving a spare and chilling student production at Saint Louis University. This grim depiction of war run amok reinvents and redefines the parameters of theater. To absorb this play is to be reminded of the first time you bewildered your way through Eraserhead. Or the time you attended the symphony expecting to hear the comforting strings of Tchaikovsky, only to be sideswiped by an evening-opening avant-garde piece that bore no relation to music as you knew it. Far Away has little to do with theater as we know it, yet it has everything to do with life as we are living it.
The play only lasts 50 minutes, yet it leaves you drained. There are moments in this disturbing production, directed by Tom Martin, when the very air is suspended. Audience coughing ceases; viewers dare not even breathe, for fear they might discover that what's happening onstage is not a play at all. If not a play, then what? Have we somehow entered into an apocalyptic nightmare from which we cannot waken?
As the evening begins, a child named Joan (Emily Piro) is seen peering out a window that bears an eerie resemblance to a guillotine. In a scene that is all the more scarifying for its quiet calm, the visiting child queries her aunt (Jennifer Theby) about strange doings on the farm. But if what's going on in the barn proves grisly, that is only the prelude -- the metaphor, perhaps -- for a society that is growing consumed by violence.
Scene Two occurs several years later. Now Joan is a young hatmaker who engages in cryptic conversations with a fellow milliner (James Malone). Where are they? We're not sure. Why are they building hats? Another question without a ready answer. Suffice to say, the bonnets that are displayed in this Orwellian world are a far cry from what Judy Garland wore in Easter Parade. By the third and final scene, Churchill's chaotic, dystopian world has devolved into an all-out war in which everyone, and everything, is compelled to take sides. Forces of nature -- the weather, the river -- become active participants in battle and destruction.
What gives here? Is the play surreal, absurdist, an enigmatic fable? Or is it merely a warped, twisted dream? Everything is open to interpretation. Yet as Churchill insists in Scene One, "These things must be thought about." Here's something to think about as you leave the theater and find your breath: Is the play's title too ironic for its own good? Perhaps a more accurate title for Far Away would be Here and Now.
By contrast, the Webster University Conservatory production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is comforting and conventional. Not that there's anything wrong with that. The stage adaptation of Muriel Spark's celebrated 1961 novel about an eccentric if perilously inspiring teacher in a Scotland girls' school, a woman simultaneously both "ridiculous and magnificent," was crafted to be a star-maker. Vanessa Redgrave scored a personal triumph in the original London production, Zoe Caldwell won a Tony Award in the Broadway transfer and Maggie Smith won an Oscar in the 1969 film. (The play itself was not nominated for anything.)
Although a student production is not about star power, it's to her credit that in the flamboyant title role Sarah L. Anderson has the vocal goods to nail the play's high notes. There's nothing of the student about her fine portrayal. To the contrary, there are moments when a viewer might wonder if Webster has imported a distinguished alum to appear with the students.
A student production also can serve as an equalizer. Supporting roles that normally would take a back seat to star-turn pyrotechnics get a fair hearing here. As Sandy, the most complex of Miss Brodie's "little girls," Maria Tholl evinces a chameleonlike quality that elevates the role into that of a worthy ally and adversary.
Nevertheless, the play is still, as it always has been, the victim of its own clunky flashback structure. Six years ago author-adapter Jay Presson Allen got rid of that unwieldy device when she reworked her script for a successful London revival. Wasn't that version available to Webster? It couldn't help but be an improvement.
Another small carp: Allen's script requires that in one pivotal scene Sandy should be completely naked (except for a towel wrapped around her head). Perhaps "completely" is asking a bit much of an actress, but the Broadway Sandy at least played the scene topless. This revealing moment provides the play with one of its key surprises; the impact of that visual surprise is missing here.