×

Far Away

A mere sliver of a play, clocking in at just under an hour, Caryl Churchill's "Far Away" is sharp as a switchblade -- it cuts as deep as anything to be seen on a New York stage. It's a small, oblique masterwork from an utterly indispensable dramatist, a writer remarkable equally for her acute sensitivity to human suffering.

With:
Harper - Frances McDormand Joan as a child - Alexa Eisenstein/Gina Rose Joan - Marin Ireland Todd - Chris Messina

A mere sliver of a play, clocking in at just under an hour, Caryl Churchill’s “Far Away” is sharp as a switchblade — it cuts as deep as anything to be seen on a New York stage. It’s a small, oblique masterwork from an utterly indispensable dramatist, a writer remarkable equally for her acute sensitivity to human suffering, her audacious imagination and her increasing economy of means. All three are on arresting display in this disturbing, mysterious and mysteriously powerful play.

Perhaps Churchill is remarkable for her good fortune with directors, too: Stephen Daldry, who helmed the London premiere of this play two seasons ago, has re-created his production at New York Theater Workshop, and it’s a marvel. The play’s power is indelibly linked to its economy and the elusiveness of its import — its scenes are like little pieces of a puzzle you fondle with distracted fascination until suddenly, terribly, they fit together — but also to the sharpness and precision of Daldry’s stage pictures, which shimmer like reflections in dark water.

He and his collaborators — Ian MacNeil (sets), Rick Fisher (lighting), Catherine Zuber (costumes) and Paul Arditti (sound), as well as a fine cast led by Frances McDormand — collaborate brilliantly to subtly fix our attention on the layers of meaning that loom behind the play’s words. They give crystalline theatrical form to Churchill’s strange vision of a nightmare future — a vision that sends you back out into the world sensing its shadows in the present.

This effect, too, is an important byproduct of Churchill’s elusive style: Her play demands close attention, and thereby exercises our faculty for it. And it is inattention to the world’s harsh and complicated truths — and the indifference of which it’s a symptom — that “Far Away” subtly condemns.

The play partakes hauntingly of the fable, the fairy tale, the bedtime story. And it begins, aptly, at bedtime. The front curtain, an eerie, almost kitschy painting of a country idyll, rises to reveal a woman dozing in a chair, a lullaby — the only words we can pick out are the ones that give the play its title — slipping from her sleep-slackened mouth. She wakes to find her young niece, visiting from elsewhere, awake, too, unable to sleep.

Harper (Frances McDormand) gently tries to send her along with the usual motherly ministrations — “Are you cold?,” “Do you want a drink?” — but it is gradually revealed that little Joan has been disturbed not by any such simple needs, but by having witnessed strange horrors her young mind can scarcely comprehend.

She saw her uncle herding frightened, wounded people into the shed in the yard, beating a couple of them savagely. The unsettled Harper gradually reshapes Joan’s impressions around a benign hypothesis: Her uncle was trying to help those people, she says — only there were a few bad, traitorous ones who had to be punished.

Off to bed Joan goes, eventually, her little mind now able to comfortably accommodate the vicious acts she’s witnessed. The savagery will disturb no more, now that it’s been put in the context of a nice bedtime story — the bad guys vs. the good guys. It will disappear into the never-never land of her dreams.

Therein lies the disturbing core of the play’s meaning, which is subtly elaborated in a handful of scenes that stretch over many years and grow increasingly absurd. In the second scene Joan is grown, working in a hat factory, preoccupied by the daily grind and by the gossip about corruption in the workplace passed along by her neighboring laborer, Todd (Chris Messina). It is followed by a macabre, overwhelmingly strange tableau that illustrates the strange ends of these milliners’ labors.

It’s better not to describe all the specifics of Churchill’s fable — it should be allowed to sneak up on you — but eventually we realize, with a shudder, the ramifications of the first scene, how it contains the seed of all that follows. An indifference to human suffering has been smoothly, smilingly inculcated in a child, and the play goes on to illustrate the monstrous fruit of the process.

In the play’s last scene, Churchill imagines, hilariously, a future in which the rot of human evil has spread to the animal and mineral worlds. The planet and all it contains has been divided into us and them, and when it is thus divided, it doesn’t really matter who is us and who is them: Any creature on the other side is ripe for extinction, and Joan can blithely talk of having “killed two cats and a child under 5.”

The scene, in which an anxious Harper talks of vicious fawns who “get under the feet of shoppers and send them crashing down escalators,” is absurdly funny. But Churchill’s comic picture of a world in which everyday objects — pins, hairspray — have taken on murderous abilities is hardly easy to dismiss in our unsettled age, in which opening an envelope has become a possibly fatal act.

And with sabers rattling loud in Washington, the play strikes home as a disturbingly apposite reminder that the comforting narratives of good and evil that are often retailed by figures of authority — a genial aunt in a cardigan sweater or a smiling politician — can be fairy tales concocted to mask darker truths. And belief in them, comforting though it may be, can have terrible repercussions — endless repercussions. Odd as it is, the lunatic vision of “Far Away” seems utterly sane, and very close to home.

Popular on Variety

Far Away

New York Theater Workshop; 188 seats; $55 top

Production: A New York Theater Workshop presentation of a play in one act by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Stephen Daldry.

Creative: Sets, Ian MacNeil; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Rick Fisher; sound, Paul Arditti; production stage manager, Martha Donaldson. Opened Nov. 11, 2002. Reviewed Nov. 9. Running time: 55 MIN.

Cast: Harper - Frances McDormand Joan as a child - Alexa Eisenstein/Gina Rose Joan - Marin Ireland Todd - Chris Messina

More Legit

  • The Sound Inside review

    Broadway Review: 'The Sound Inside' Starring Mary-Louise Parker

    Mary-Louise Parker will take your breath away with her deeply felt and sensitively drawn portrait of a tenured Yale professor who treasures great literature, but has made no room in her life for someone to share that love with. The other thesp in this two-hander is Will Hochman, endearing in the supportive role of a [...]

  • Little Shop of Horrors review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Little Shop of Horrors'

    With its strains of kitschy doo-wop and its sci-fi B-movie inspirations, the quaint 1982 musical “Little Shop of Horrors” hardly seems a thing of modern-day revivalism, even despite its touches of S&M. Yet this year alone, not only is there an Off Broadway production of the blackly comic “Little Shop” featuring Jonathan Groff of Netflix’s [...]

  • The Lightning Thief review musical

    Broadway Review: 'The Lightning Thief,' The Musical

    “It’s a lot to take in right now,” says Percy Jackson, the teen hero of “The Lightning Thief,” the kid-centric fantasy musical (based on the popular Y.A. novel) that’s now on Broadway after touring the country and playing an Off Broadway run. You could say that’s a bit of an understatement from contemporary teen Percy [...]

  • The Rose Tattoo review

    Broadway Review: 'The Rose Tattoo' Starring Marisa Tomei

    “The Rose Tattoo” is what happens when a poet writes a comedy — something strange, but kind of lovely. The same might be said of director Trip Cullman’s production: Strange, if not exactly lovely. Even Marisa Tomei, so physically delicate and expressively refined, seems an odd choice to play the lusty and passionate protagonist, Serafina [...]

  • Obit-Roy-B

    Former NATO President Roy B. White Dies at 93

    Roy B. White, former president and chairman of the National Association of Theater Owners, died of natural causes Oct. 11 in Naples, Fla. He was 93. White ran the 100-screen independent theater circuit, Mid–States Theaters Inc. In addition to his career, he did extensive work on behalf of charities and non-profits. He was vice president [...]

  • Soft Power review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Soft Power'

    The “culture-clash musical” is a familiar template, in which a white American protagonist — waving the flag of individuality, optimism and freedom — trumps and tramps over the complexities of that which is foreign, challenging or “other.” David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s “Soft Power,” the new “play with a musical” at Off Broadway’s Public [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content