You have to hand it to British playwright Caryl Churchill. In an age in which abstraction is on the run and sentimentalists are treated like major artists, she continues to write in a language that makes no compromises with popular taste. "You want to hear people talk like they do on TV or in the movies?" she seems to be saying. "Go watch TV or go to the movies."
"Far Away," her latest play to cross the Atlantic, is no exception. At a bizarre running time of 50 minutes, it defines a full theatrical experience qualitatively, not quantitatively. And the running time is the least bizarre aspect of "Far Away."
You have to applaud Zeitgeist Stage Company, too. This company, the first to bring the Churchill play to an area stage, does not back away from difficult subject matter. It seems to be saying, "You want easy? Go watch CNN or `Master and Commander.' "
"Far Away" is not an easy play. It suggests a post-9/11 world in which George Orwell is looking askance at George W. Bush, and the ethnic slaughter in the former Yugoslavia is a heartbeat away from contemporary countries in which such things could not, we think, happen.
Not that Churchill is working with such specificity. The dystopian society she limns in four startling tableaux is neither of this world nor apart from it. An aunt's attempt at covering up the strange screams in the barn to a visiting young girl; a day on the job in which talk of career advancement trumps political torture; a fascistic fashion show; and the choosing of sides in a surreal civil war are meant to seem "far away" from our lives, but the skill of the playwright and the production lies in their ability to bring it home.
And both the playwright and the production are partially successful. Zeitgeist cannot afford the eerie bells and whistles of the off-Broadway production. At the same time, the company's masterful use of the smaller Black Box Theater at the Boston Center for the Arts yields exquisitely intimate chills, particularly in the central processional scene that allows a great deal of directorial leeway. David Miller handles the directorial duties with imagination and intelligence.
The playwright's dialogue is demanding. It is not naturalistic but demands a naturalistic delivery. There are four actors playing three characters. The two who play Young Joan and Older Joan -- Natanjah Driscoll, who alternates with Nicole Brathwaite, and Naeemah A. White-Peppers -- are the most adept at capturing the creepy normalcy of Churchill's twilight zone of a world. Renee Miller was too fussy as the aunt, and Paul Rorie was too bland as the young man. I should say, however, that because of a conflict with "Private Lives" at the Lyric, Zeitgeist let me into the first preview, so perhaps the actors have become more comfortable with the script.
Having seen "Far Away" both here and in New York, my admiration for Churchill's writing has grown, though my main reservation about the play hasn't diminished. Churchill has found sharp metaphors for both the chaos of the world we live in and the way we numb ourselves to that chaos. On a cerebral level, "Far Away" works wonderfully.
It's the emotional level that is more troubling. Should we walk out feeling less secure about either our safety or what we have done to try to ensure that safety? If so, "Far Away" still seems too remote a theatrical experience.
Ed Siegel can be reached at email@example.com.
Play in one act by Caryl Churchill.
Direction and set, David J. Miller. Costumes, Loann West. Lights, Jeff Adelberg. Sound, Walter Eduardo. Produced by Zeitgeist Stage Company.
At Boston Center for the Arts, through Jan. 24. 617-426-2787.