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.

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.

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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.

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

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