While FDR maintained that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, British playwright Caryl Churchill modifies that dictum in her 2000 Far Away, which is getting an imaginative production at Roger Williams University's Barn Summer Playhouse (through June 25).
We have nothing to fear but ourselves, she points out, and goes far toward convincing us in an economic 45 minutes.
We are properly placed off-balance by scenic designer Kelly Cabral's smart and effective opening set. A tilting white café table and two matching chairs, equally distorted, are set on a black-and-white checkerboard stage, order hopefully beneath disorder. Slanting blue walls direct our attention to a backlit orange background with silhouettes of absurdly fancy ladies' hats.
We are prepared for weirdness. And considering that Churchill and her plays have an aversion to naturalism like Birthers have an aversion to common sense, the realistic opening scene has an additional tension.
In a nightgown and clutching her stuffed koala bear, Joan (Erin Sheehan) tells her Aunt Harper (Melanie Snow) that she can't sleep. A sound in the dark outside frightened her, and gradually she draws a description that grows more and more ominous. No, her aunt assures her, it must have been an owl, not a person screaming. Get the picture? Gradually, Joan admits to having seen more and more, including blood she had to wipe off her slippers, and point by point Harper gently explains away reality with all the smooth sophistry of a government press spokesman.
Is the aunt protecting the child? Herself? The uncle who was seen doing questionable things? Harper tells her that all their lives are in danger if Joan reveals what she has seen. The only comfort she can offer the child is that she is now part of a movement "to make the world better."
Next, several years have passed. We are not on a battlefield or witnessing political debate, we are in a hat factory. Two people in white coats are at a table designing women's hats, like kids playing in kindergarten, sticking a feather in here, a ribbon on there. Joan is now grown up, and her bench-mate Todd (Christopher O'Brien) is nervously trying to connect with her, obviously attracted. Churchill has incidental fun here lampooning solipsistic creativity: Todd says he designed an abstract hat the week before, modeled after a street, with gray for the sidewalk and blue for the sky. No one would know the reference, he says, but it satisfied him.
We get little flickering peeks at the outside world, such as when Todd mentions in passing that he was "up till 4 watching the trials." Between O'Brien and the skillful direction of Robin Stone, Todd is established as a character with dangerous self-assurance. He contends that "I'm the only person in this place with any principles," so when he bravely sets forth to complain to the head of the company about corruption in the industry, we have reason to worry about him.
Days go by between scenes. Eventually, Joan is praised by Todd for getting one of her hats placed in a museum. I wish I could tell you the real purpose for these hats, because it's chillingly, cleverly, allegorically apt. Churchill certainly has a knack for finding the right absurdity to match the right reality.