The great disparity in the critical reaction to Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, now playing Off Broadway, serves to remind us that opinions are just that–neither right nor wrong, but rather well argued or not. However, if one mark of the true artist is the willingness to take risks and to venture into uncharted territory, then Churchill is the genuine article. For more than two decades, almost every offering by this fiercely political British playwright has been innovative and intellectually stimulating.
Churchill quickly established herself more than twenty years ago with Cloud Nine. In this early work, the characters age just twenty-five years between Acts One and Two, even though the first is set in British colonial Africa in the 1880s and the second in a London park a century later. To add that Cloud 9 calls for its cast members to cross-dress should begin to suggest one of the play’s implicit messages: that in spite of our self-proclaimed sexual liberation, our generation is every bit as confused about gender issues and sexuality as the Victorians were.
Churchill’s theatrical imagination took even greater historical leaps in her subsequent play, Top Girls (1982). By bringing together a fantastic assortment of significant figures at the same dinner table (including a thirteenth-century Japanese courtesan, a Victorian female explorer, the ninth-century Pope Joan and a very contemporary woman who relinquished nearly everything worthwhile in her climb up the corporate ladder), the provocative Churchill got to have her feminist cake and criticize it too.
While continuing to defy categorization, the more mature Churchill has discovered novel ways of saying more with less. The second half of Blue Heart–which was imported to BAM three years ago with its British cast intact–concerns a 41-year-old con artist claiming to be the son of various mothers who had given up their baby boys for adoption. As he meets with each of these elderly women in hopes of hoodwinking them, the play’s language progressively breaks down. More specifically, the words “blue” and “kettle” increasingly creep into their conversation, in place of more logical words. In the end, the characters’ language is reduced to mere syllables, but they continue to communicate as if they understand one another. Churchill’s striking linguistic experiment pays off handsomely, as we realize that language may be used equally to misinterpret what others say, according to what we wish to hear.
Far Away also features an uncommonly economical use of words. In a sense, the story has to be pieced together by what is not said–between the lines, as it were–even as it reveals itself to us gradually. Though no time frame or setting is given for the hourlong play, we’re told in the program that “several years” pass between each of three brief acts, which culminate in what would appear to be the near future. But it doesn’t take long to recognize Far Away for what it is: an urgent wake-up call regarding the horrific, totalitarian conditions that seem to be proliferating all over the world.
The audience is greeted by a painted curtain, which depicts a storybook cottage poised on the edge of a brook. The attendant sounds of gurgling water and chirping birds contribute to the idyllic effect–which is as deliberately deceptive as the play’s first scene. The curtain rises to reveal Harper, a middle-aged woman, in a comfy old easy chair, lulling herself to sleep with a song. It’s 2 am and dark inside the house, when Harper is jolted awake by the appearance of her young visiting niece, Joan, who can’t fall sleep.