“Escaped Alone” at Soulpepper: A taut, spare production that fascinates

Scott Sneddon

Scott Sneddon

Scott Sneddon is Senior Editor on SesayArts Magazine where he is also a critic and contributor.

Kyra Harper, Brenda Robins, Clare Coulter, and Maria Vacratsis. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Escaped Alone is a hard play.

Written by Caryl Churchill in 2016 at age 79, it’s on stage now at Soulpepper in a co-production with Necessary Angel Theatre, and directed by Jennifer Tarver. 

The play is lyrical and riveting. But don’t be fooled by its compactness. Though just 50 minutes long, there’s enough character, poetry and challenge to make your head explode. You emerge not quite confident about what you should make of it . . . but greatly enriched by the experience.

The play focuses on four cracklingly vital British women in their seventies. One of them, Mrs Jarrett, played by a wiry, soulful Clare Coulter, comes to a backyard wall, peeks through, and is invited in by 3 neighbours. From that point on, we are spectators to verbal pyrotechnics mounted from a sparse set of mismatched lawn chairs, a pitcher and glasses of lemonade. The play slips from these women’s backyard conversation about children, family, careers, challenges and ideas into interior monologues that illuminate in searing ways their inside life.

Clare Coulter. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Maria Vacratsis plays Sally as wry and confident . . . until we uncover her surprising phobia in a tour de force soliloquy.  Lena (Kyra Harper) is scattered and supine . . . trying to break free, and pulled back down by the un-focusing weight of depression. And Brenda Robins’ earthy, intense Vi is deeply compelling, thanks to the most interesting backstory of the three, and her ability to communicate the complex inner life beneath the infectious outer twinkle.

Some of their exchanges are intensely clipped, forcing us to grope after subtext. These women know each other so well that articles, adjectives, adverbs – and sometimes even verbs – are no longer necessary. This familiarity enables quicksilver emotional turns from sympathy to meanness to acceptance. In fact, their life experience is so abundant and their perspective so refined, that they seem to have mastered the deepest kind of pattern recognition beneath the chaos of life’s details.

Brenda Robins. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Is this . . . wisdom? The wisdom of septuagenarian women in a supportive community? That’s at least part of what we’re experiencing. But there’s decidedly more, and it complicates that wisdom. The fourth woman, Ms Coulter’s intense and wiry Mrs Jarrett, comes from outside the backyard. She performs a decidedly different interior life (if that’s in fact what it is). In brief monologues, she channels brain-bending, synaesthetic news dispatches from a hallucinatory apocalypse that seems to have been underway for some time. She describes a world where environmental catastrophe has met the death of logic inside the graveyard of physics. Her poetic mashup of lucidity and absurdity defies description, reminding me of extended passages in British comic book writer Grant Morrison’s stream-of-consciousness, absurdist (and admittedly drug-fuelled) Doom Patrol comic book in the 1980s.

Yet there’s a ring of urgent, impossible truth beneath the absurdity of her imagery . . . so what to make of it? Is this just the seething miasma of Mrs Jerrett’s mindscape? Is this the deeper chaos that lies beneath their lives, outside their backyard . . . just ahead in our future?

I lack by some decades the experience, perspective and wisdom of these characters, so I admit that I’m just not sure. So I will offer one additional thought.

Birds are a potent and malleable metaphor in Escaped Alone, examined by the characters in several ways through the play. And this production’s sparse set, surrounded on both sides by audience members, is topped by hundreds of suspended small paper cutouts of birds. These women – surface flaws, deep wisdom, apocalyptic warnings and all –  exist beneath thousands of flight paths that originate before them, and will reach their endpoints after passing over this backyard.

We’re a bit like those birds…looking down on this backyard, and burrowing into the inner lives of these women, during our brief 50-minute flyby.

Like I said, it’s a hard play.  And this taut, spare production fascinates.  

News You Can Use

Brenda Robins, Clare Coulter, Maria Vacratsis, Kyra Harper. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

What: Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill; co-produced by Soulpepper and Necessary Angel Theatre; Directed by Jennifer Tarver; Performed by Clare Coulter (Mrs Jarrett), Kyra Harper (Lena), Brenda Robins (Vi), Maria Vacratsis (Sally)

When: On stage until November 25, 2018; running time: 50 minutes (no intermission)

Where: Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane in the Distillery Historic District, Toronto, ON

Info and Tickets: Soulpepper.ca

© 2018 Scott Sneddon, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine

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