The Friday evening performance of Caryl Churchill’s Far Away provoked the audience to contemplate the decaying human condition. The intimate space of Bob Jones University’s Performance Hall allowed us to vividly experience each moment in a play that depends on the emotions evoked by its images and word play. Directed by senior theatre major C.J. McElhiney, the play featured three speaking characters and a silent ensemble.
The production began with three faculty members giving clear introductions and explanations that prepared the audience for what it was about to see. Then the actual show began, opening on a dimly lit stage. Shadowy figures moved in the background. Then they left and the lights faded into stars, which combined with natural sound effects to create the feeling of being in a forest at night.
In scene one, JOAN (Janie Board) and HARPER (Jessica Ingersoll) engage in an understated interrogation, each trying to discover what the other knows. Harper tries to end the conversation with every answer she gives, and Joan tries to continue it with each question she asks. The actors portray these two characters believably and simply, allowing the audience to fill in the unspoken details and emotions. The crisp, sterile speech contrasts the bloody images it describes, defiling itself only momentarily when the actors raise their voices in a quest to discover or to hide the truth. As the scene ends, the audience is still unsure of what had happened, but also feels a gnawing awareness of an evil being dismissed.
The transitions between scenes were visible in a dim light, allowing the audience to follow a time jump of several years. In the second scene, we meet Joan again—this time as an adult, working in a hat factory with TODD (Jonathan Watson). Todd guides Joan through her first few days in the hat factory, giving advice on hats, lunch, and office politics. It is quickly obvious that there are certain things best left unsaid for fear of being overheard by the wrong people. The actors convey the tension exquisitely—the furtive glances felt real, and the moral dilemmas seemed familiar to anyone who has joined a workplace only to have a coworker explain the political maneuvering awaiting the new employee.
The transitions within this scene were more hidden, each time bringing a new, more complete version of the hats. When the hats are finally finished, the scene introduces a parade. The ensemble members step out, attired in tattered gray clothing and wearing the spectacular hats. They slowly march a dreadful, exhausting march across the stage until they are standing on all sides, surrounding Joan and Todd and facing the audience. A well-dressed man in a tailored suit glides among the ensemble and selects a winning hat, and thus condemns the entire ensemble. Yet as the parade reaches its demise, Joan and Todd continue making hats blithely. They are content to ignore the ultimate destination of their hats, and instead focus on their indignation at the corruption of their workplace. Surrounded by the legacy of their work, they decide to act on their personal complaints.
The final scene occurs in Harper’s home once again. This time Todd and Harper engage in a nonsensical debate, yet the actors committed very well to the strange words and comparisons. The arguments sounded as though the actors truly believed that what they were saying was true. And although the words themselves made little sense to the audience, they created a feeling of doom as nature turned against itself. Then Joan joins the conversation and describes her horrific journey. She paces along the edge of the stage and makes eye contact with audience members as she delivers a lengthy monologue, appealing to them to understand her. Her words paint a picture of death and decay accompanied by ruthlessness and complete selfishness. Her words leave the audience horrified, unsure whether to feel sympathy or disgust.
Then the production ends, leaving the audience uncomfortable—disturbed by the images they have seen and the things they have heard that reveal the worst of human depravity and yet still maintain echoes of familiarity. So many elements touched aspects of our own lives, and I left wondering how far I would have to go before what I had seen and heard became my reality.
Congratulations to the cast and crew. You took a challenging script and turned it into a thought-provoking and haunting production. There is one more showing, if anyone would like to attend. A few tickets will be sold at the door for this evening’s 7:30 performance. It would be well worth your time to try to go.