The World Ends Over Small Talk in Escaped Alone

A tea party is overshadowed by the apocalypse.

The world is in chaos—the president commits suicide, fires rage, floods are unleashed, and pets fall from the sky. Yet while these doomsday scenarios unfold, four women sip tea in a cozy backyard and discuss shopping. It's enough to make even the most discombobulated of playgoers likely to declare, "I don't know what that was, but I know I loved it."

If the melding of the apocalyptic and the mundane in Escaped Alone was a challenge for playwright Caryl Churchill or Shaking the Tree Theatre director Samantha Van Der Merwe, it doesn't show. Packed with bold visuals, daring ideas and brilliantly queasy humor, the play isn't always easy to understand. But it is impossible to turn away from.

Escaped Alone begins with the actors shrouded in darkness, their silhouettes illuminated menacingly in the dark. The dread that mounts when they enter is briefly dispelled as the stage is filled with bright, cheery lighting that reveals three friends—Sally (Jane Bement Geesman), Vi (JoAnn Johnson) and Lena (Lorraine Bahr)—who are later joined by Mrs. Jarrett (Jacklyn Maddux) for tea.

The group is soon trading banal pleasantries and gossip. Yet their chatter is constantly fractured by interludes in which the lights dim and Mrs. Jarrett stands and addresses the audience, speaking of a crisis that culminates in the spread of disease, the devastation of the environment, and the collapse of society.

While Mrs. Jarrett's monologues are rife with unnerving details—including people losing their hair and cities being relocated to rooftops—we're never sure whether she's talking about something that has happened or something that will happen. Her dialogue is so evasive that for all we know, she could even be constructing an elaborate metaphor for the events that led to Vi's stint in prison, a disturbing bit of backstory that is gradually unveiled.

It's a testament to Churchill, Van Der Merwe and the cast that the play's ambiguities intrigue rather than frustrate. Escaped Alone is so engrossing it's easy to sit back and surrender to its surreal flow—to bask in peculiarities like Sally's comically intense cat phobia ("a cat could be under the lid of a casserole," she says with a shiver) and the images frequently projected across the backyard fence (including a weirdly distorted row of towering flames that seems to symbolize the end of Earth as we know it).

Escaped Alone is rich with provocative details. You might, for instance, fixate on Mrs. Jarrett's untamed curls and loose-fitting plaid shirt and wonder whether they are meant to contrast with the more stereotypically feminine tidy hairstyles and prim clothing worn by Sally, Vi and Lena. Maybe the play wants us to see a connection between Mrs. Jarrett's refusal to conform and her ability to speak painful truths the rest of the characters never voice.

Or maybe not. Understanding Escaped Alone is a journey that every member of the audience member will have to complete on their own terms—and I, for one, wouldn't have it any other way. What makes Shaking the Tree one of the gutsiest production companies in the city is Van Der Merwe's ability to look straight at enshrined notions about what theater can or should be and tell them to go to hell. She and Churchill recognize that both humanity and art will always be defined by the same choice: Evolve or die.

SEE IT: Escaped Alone runs at Shaking the Tree Theatre, 823 SE Grant St., 7:30 pm Thursday-Sunday, through June 1. $10-$30.

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