BWW Review: ESCAPED ALONE's Cast is the Welcome Light in a Dark Story
Caryl Churchill's 2016 work ESCAPED ALONE receives a subtle, simple reincarnation in its Canadian premiere. Produced by Soulpepper and the Necessary Angel Theatre Company, the piece walks a fine line between mundane and manic for the entirety of its 50-minute view time.
The show opens with a gripping monologue delivered by who we come to learn is Mrs. Jarrett (Clare Coulter) - describing an apocalyptic terror. Creatures - once human - living underground, trading fungus for urine, their babies going blind, and the telling and morphing of legends about the people who live above them, seem to be at the height of deprivation. Coulter is a commanding presence and her strong voice booms from her slight frame during the multiple tellings of civilization's devolution after disasters.
She wanders fresh out of a chilling story and almost by mistake, into a picture-perfect afternoon visit between friends. Vi (Brenda Robins), Lena (Kyra Harper) and Sally (Maria Vacratsis) carry on with their gossip about whose children are doing what, how it's such a shame the local shops keep closing, and that things have certainly changed in the six years since Vi has been away. Coulter perches on the edge of their conversation, occasionally contributing, sometimes instigating, but always a bit confused about what's being discussed. With masterful control of her body, she seemingly disappears into the background while remaining center stage with a simple cross of the leg and inward slump. She is the clear outsider in this group of lifelong friends and while she knows enough to get along with the women, as seen in the great group rendition of "Doh Wah Diddy," there's a divide that just can't be placed.
As the garden party carries on, each actor has just a few moments to build and explain their characters, but these theatre veterans grip their lines with ferocity and drain as much emotion as possible from them. The first woman to go under the figurative microscope is Sally, whose smug attitude fades out at the mention of cats and carries her into a huge performance. This scene could easily come across as silly, but it's the crazed energy that Vacratsis exerts, more and more as the monologue goes on, that makes it a raw, striking moment.
In stark contrast to Vacratsis is Harper, whose Lena is a soft-spoken, gentle woman with a sense of tragic regality to her. While Harper doesn't have the luxury of one-liners or larger-than-life personalities to make her mark, she nails the withdrawn Lena with more subtlety than her castmates. The quiet addition of extra blankets and the way she tucks herself into a chair says volumes about Lena, and Harper hits every mark with expertise.
Balancing out the cast is the would-be comedic relief, Vi, and Robins plays to her quirkiness. She'll crack a Doctor Who joke one moment, to the ladies' (humorous) chagrin, and the next she's drawn back into her past to relive a moment she can't forget or change. Robins hits all her cues and drops her jokes in the most severe of moments with charming awkwardness.
Despite the cast's incredible performances, the writing - as intriguing as it is - is a bit awkward to watch unfold. With any script that states that it's characters "can and do finish each other's sentences" comes with the risk of awkward pauses and hesitations. This happens on a few occasions but is nearly inevitable when actors are only given partial lines - sometimes it even works out, and there's a moment of perfect synchronization in the back and forth.
Lighting (Jennifer Lennon) was a key aspect in this production and handled wonderfully, with a great contrast between the stark white spotlights and coloured lights reflecting off dozens of paper birds hung above the stage (set by Teresa Przybylski). Sound (Verne Good) is kept minimal and effective throughout the play, giving the cast plenty of space to deliver.
Despite some lines falling a bit flat due to cultural differences and connotations, and a bit of awkward hesitation with the constant interjection-style of writing, it's the cast that brings ESCAPED ALONE to life here. They weave comedy with fear, and banality with horror, with a kind of ease that only comes with their extensive collective experience.
ESCAPED ALONE runs through November 25 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, ON.
For more information or to buy tickets, visit https://soulpepper.ca/performances/escaped-alone/6160