WARWICK – “Escaped Alone,” British playwright Caryl Churchill’s 2016 play, begins sedately. Three 70-something ladies, longtime friends, are gathered in a backyard for tea and conversation. A neighbor passes by and is invited to join them.
The talk travels familiar ground, like children and where shops and businesses “used to be,” a topic that should resonate with Rhode Islanders. The humorous bits occasionally shift to the unsettling, however, as we learn more about the friends, from one’s apparent agoraphobia to another’s overwrought fear of cats. But the friends remain supportive of one another, anyway most of the time.
Then the lighting changes to isolate the neighbor, Mrs. Jarrett, who steps forward periodically to report catastrophe. She talks of water flooding towns and stranding people on rooftops. Later, it’s about chemicals leaching into the environment, then disastrous winds, and fires. But when “daylight” returns, so does the amiable conversation.
At the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, where this 80-minute play and a companion piece, Samuel Beckett’s 10-minute “Come and Go,” have a short, two-week run, production values are arresting, which is a good thing because they are more significant than in many plays.
The lighting dramatically changes the mood, from pleasant outdoors to blackout, except for a harshly lighted Mrs. Jarrett. Realistic sounds accompany the disasters of which Mrs. Jarrett speaks, prophetically, except that she uses past tense. The backdrop of a brick wall that looks substantial in the garden scenes becomes translucent when glaring spotlights behind it are turned on, signaling Mrs. Jarrett’s reports. Interestingly, all of Beckett’s play is performed behind the blur of the scrim, enabling characters to appear and disappear, ghost-like.
As for what’s going on, that will take some thought. In program notes, director Tony Estrella, who also is The Gamm’s artistic director, rightly connects Mrs. Jarrett’s reports with real-life news, such as disastrous fires and the life-threatening temperatures of the polar vortex. Such “bad news” headlines are broadcast in chaotic fashion as scenes change, another skillful use of stagecraft.
But how does that relate to the conversations among friends? Are they worrying about the wrong things: cats instead of the apocalypse? Or are their worries to be taken as metaphors? Now there is lots to talk about, including the title, taken from the Book of Job: “I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”
Without an intermission, we segue into Beckett’s play, in which three people, seated on a bench, have superficial conversations until one of them leaves and the remaining two begin to talk in alarmed whispers. The rotation repeats until the final scene when they all come together again. That coming together is common to both plays, a tie that binds through thick and thin.
Non-linear plays like these can be mystifying, but sorting through what we’ve seen is among the best parts of the theater-going experience.
So, too, is appreciating the work of four fabulous actors: the friends in both plays, portrayed by Carol Drewes, Marya Lowry and Karen MacDonald, and Debra Wise as Mrs. Jarrett. In small gestures and revealing monologues they create nuanced characters and make real the feeling of camaraderie that comes with long friendships, or openness to a new one. Lowry appeared in The Gamm’s “Hedda Gabler”; the other three are making their Gamm debuts. All four keep a grip on our attention even as we’re wondering what it’s all about.
The performances, the production and the ideas -- not spelled out but brought up for examination -- are good reasons to get to The Gamm in the next two weeks.
Performances of “Escaped Alone” and “Come and Go” continue through March 17 at The Gamm, 1245 Jefferson Blvd. Ticket are $44, $52 and $60; call (401) 723-4266 or order online at gammtheatre.org.