People of advancing age aren’t the most underrepresented group on America’s stages, but the truths of their experience are often glossed over or stereotyped. Plays about aging tend to strike notes of bittersweet wistfulness (On Golden Pond) or spunky perseverance (Calendar Girls). When fictional seniors get angry, they tend to have youthful Pollyannas dispatched to cheer them up.
That makes it all the more striking when a riveting moment at the heart of Frank Theatre’s new production centers on an episode of caustic rage. Mrs. Jarrett (Cheryl Willis) isn’t mad about some kids on her lawn, or some bruised produce: Her anger is far deeper, more existential. The three women chatting beside her (Maria Asp, Barbra Berlovitz, and Janis Hardy) don’t even notice her angst.
It’s the climax of Escaped Alone, one of two short Caryl Churchill plays being presented by Frank Theatre on a single two-hour bill. The lauded British playwright builds works with strange angles and surreal juxtapositions, but she also has a sharp sense of humor, a generous spirit, and a genius for dramatic effect.
Escaped Alone (2016) and Here We Go (2015) are in sure hands with director Wendy Knox and her collaborators, who bring these bracing plays to Gremlin Theatre in a matched pair of engaging and detailed stagings. Churchill’s unconventional scripts require companies to consider their choices carefully; Knox and her cast combine the two plays to build a compelling dramatic arc. Standout work by sound designer Dan Dukich evokes a vast and unfamiliar world around Churchill’s troubled characters.
The superb Escaped Alone cast are joined by Charla Marie Bailey and Patrick Bailey for Here We Go, another meditation on mortality. Whereas Escaped Alone has Willis describing a range of apocalyptic scenarios, Here We Go finds Patrick Bailey facing a more personal apocalypse—though the mourners at what may be his own funeral all pause to dryly specify how and when their own deaths will come.
While his character, in a monologue, tries to figure out what (if any) afterlife he’ll enjoy, he takes stock of his time on Earth. But why, he seems to wonder, should he have to render judgment on himself? At the end of his days, the easy rhythms of life come to seem like a cruel cosmic joke. “It goes on and on and you’re used to it,” he says, “and suddenly....”
He’s back to life, but barely, for the enormously poignant final scene, shared with Charla Marie Bailey as a caregiver who helps him to slowly get dressed. Her silent aid, tender and without condescension, is oddly riveting, but as the scene goes on your gaze starts to drift up to the other audience members visible across the thrust stage. What are they thinking? The actors are playing a scene that’s familiar to all of us, or will eventually be. If we’re lucky.
Escaped Alone/Here We Go
550 Vandalia Ave., St. Paul
Through September 29; franktheatre.org