When We Dread Awaken

Only when the parade is staged—a procession of chained prisoners sporting the millinery confections, accompanied by scratchy military oompah-pah—do we begin to understand the purpose of Joan and Todd's labors: The fanciful hats prettify a gruesome death march of the condemned. Our earnest artisans are revealed to be nonchalant apparatchiks in a promiscuous state practice of political execution. But Joan's moral choices are limited to whether she should risk her livelihood by challenging the corruption of the hat-shop bosses; she has completely internalized the values that demand making the hats at all.

From a world where executions are not only accepted but a ritualized and festive spectacle, the further decline into Churchill's surreal dystopia feels dramatically logical, if unsettling. The writing is laconic, opening space for us to put the pieces together, much as young Joan does in that first scene when she hears screaming and sees blood.

But our critical imaginations can only be productively pricked if Far Away is played lightly: The characters must be carrying on normally even as we recognize the bizarre and troubling nature of their actions. Though directed here by Stephen Daldry, who also staged the first production in London, this version lacks the subtlety and charm of the original. Foreboding crept up in the London production. Joan and Todd flirted affably while going about their work. Aunt Harper remained sweet and reassuring in the opening scene. In devastating contrast, the American cast—adding some 10 minutes to the running time—inserts lugubrious pauses and underlines portentousness at every turn. Messina comes on bursting with hostility, as if wanting to convey a disturbing inner life of confusion and rage. With fussy gestures and long silences, McDormand calls attention to Harper's complicity in the mysterious activities in the yard. Such pointing at the unstated forecloses our own considerations, removing us from the collusion that Churchill insists so urgently that we face.

McDormand and Eisenstein in Far Away: "If it’s a party, why was there so much blood?"
photo: Alisa Solomon
McDormand and Eisenstein in Far Away: "If it’s a party, why was there so much blood?"

Details

Far Away
By Caryl Churchill
New York Theatre Workshop
79 East 4th Street
212-239-6200

Ghosts
By Henrik Ibsen
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
212-677-4210


Ibsen's ability to hook into and reroute audience expectations, forcing spectators to confront the pretenses and rationalizations of their own decaying world, is harder to recognize nowadays. Lanford Wilson's playable, colloquial "translation" of Ghosts goes a long way toward removing the stodginess unfairly associated with Ibsen's prose plays. But it's more difficult to update the play's collapse into a melodramatic ending. Still, cleanly directed by Daniel Fish, and played crisply by a tight ensemble, Ghosts continues to raise compelling questions about duty, love, and morality.

The play centers on the return home of Oswald Alving (Ted Schneider) for the dedication of an orphanage in his late father's name. His flirtations with the household maid Regina (Lisa Demont) and his confession to his mother (Amy Irving) that he has been diagnosed with syphilis (though it is an illness that dares not speak its name, even in Wilson's more explicit version) unhinge the structure of falsehoods that has kept the family—and, by extension, society in general—miserably intact. Freethinking Mrs. Alving's confrontations with preachy, prudish Reverend Manders (Daniel Gerroll) provide the ever-timely intellectual agon of the play, while the manipulations of the decrepit Jakkob Engstrand (David Patrick Kelly) demonstrate how easily knee-jerk moralizing can be bent to nefarious purposes. There aren't any revelations in Fish's minimalist staging. But then there aren't any concept-y encumbrances either. Ibsen's grapplings with the forces of change are plain to see, in all their profound prescience.

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