In the dystopian world of “Far Away,” the mundane becomes malicious and daily life dangerous. The always-imaginative Whistler in the Dark Theatre company has chosen this unsettling Caryl Churchill one-act as its swan song — the company is shutting down after nine seasons — and it’s difficult to ignore the sense of inevitability while watching this one-act at the Charlestown Working Theater.
Director Meg Taintor opens the play by leading her trio of actors in a haunting a cappella rendition of the traditional Irish tune “The Parting Glass.” The elegiac song sets a somber tone for Churchill’s abstract tale of a world descending into terror.
The first scene explores the end of innocence. As a young child, Joan (Becca A. Lewis) is awakened by noises outside. As her aunt Harper (Lorna Nogueira) tries to tell her it is only an owl, Joan quietly tells her it sounded more like a person screaming. “Why was there so much blood?” Joan asks, with simple curiosity, as the horrifying reality of what she saw comes into sharp focus. Taintor stages this scene simply, with Lewis beginning under a table, as if in a safe place, only to clamber up to her aunt, sitting on a chair on top of the table. With a wonderful combination of caution and care, Lewis lays out each detail of her experience with calm persistence, slowly breaking through her aunt’s increasingly lame explanations.
In the second scene, Joan has grown up to join a resistance movement that is fighting an unwinnable war, where deer terrorize shopping malls, cats are killing babies, and the weather is on the side of the Japanese. She is starting a new job as a milliner, working with Todd (Bob Mussett), a more experienced co-worker who is grateful for the job, since he had worked for a time in an abattoir where he stunned pigs and musicians. The surreal nature of their conversation stands in stark contrast to the simple task of decorating exotic hats, which, it turns out, are being created for a shocking parade of prisoners.
Churchill is a master at tossing audiences into the thick of a scene and letting us scramble to find our bearings. Like Harold Pinter, Churchill’s spare, simple dialogue relies on actors who can communicate a world of intense emotion with the most superficial and unassuming responses. These squirm-inducing experiences can be thrilling, particularly in the intimate setting of the Charlestown Working Theater. But “Far Away” feels too disjointed to be dramatically compelling.
While the scene with young Joan is loaded with dramatic tension, Joan’s experience making hats suggests a feeling of futility rather than a resistance movement fighting for justice. The situation has become so chaotic, there’s little to look forward to. Let’s hope that’s not the final word from a theater company as visionary as Whistler in the Dark.