Courtesy of Joan Marcus

In “Escaped Alone,” the Yale Repertory’s most recent production, four women in their seventies sit and talk in their backyard. But something darker is brewing amid the chatter. In the intimate conversations between friends, personal tragedies and universal catastrophes collide. 

Written by Caryl Churchill and directed by Liz Diamond, “Escaped Alone” will premiere on March 8 and run until March 30 at the Yale Repertory Theater. According to Diamond, the play explores the complexities of female friendships, alongside the mundane truths that lurk in everyday conversations. 

“I think that what’s so brilliant about this play is the way Churchill asks us or invites us to appreciate the way we function in simultaneous parallel universes of conversation with contemplation, subconscious yearnings, suppressed grief, fears that percolate up in us and apocalyptic visions,” Diamond said.

The play unravels in a backyard in suburban London, in which a trio of friends — Sally, Vi and Lena — is joined by Mrs. Jarrett, a less-acquainted individual, who appears at the door of the fence. As these four characters chat, the conversation is interrupted by Mrs. Jarrett’s startling monologues that deliver apocalyptic visions of the future. 

Mrs. Jarrett’s rants are more than panic-inducing soliloquy; Embedded within these words is a concerning, yet deeply necessary truth, said Diamond. 

“She’s a kind of Cassandra figure,” she said. “During the monologues that are spoken by Mrs. Jarrett, she punches through the membrane of the universe within which the women live a kind of domestic, contemporary, middle class working class, English existence into another dimension to report back to us what happened to the world … She’s not necessarily telling us what we want to hear. We might prefer to think, within her words, there is a kind of madness. We might want to console ourselves with that, but in fact, there’s a kind of terrible, terrible truth in her speeches.” 

LaTonya Borsay, who plays Mrs. Jarrett in the play, described her character as not just a soothsayer but as someone whose prophetic visions seek to inspire action. For Borsay, the play is largely “preventative” in nature and provides clues to evade future catastrophe — before it is too late.  

These clues lie in the power of community, according to Borsay. 

“Even though we’re individuals, we’re not living completely isolated lives,” Borsay said. “We are on the planet existing, breathing the same air, seeing the same sun and watching the moon rise … Getting people to act in whatever ways we can consciously act to keep everything sustainable for all life is her charge.” 

Rita Wolf, who plays the role of ‘Lena,’ characterized the play’s commentary on the future as somewhat characteristic of Churchill’s other works.

Wolf pointed to “A Number,” a 2002 play that centered around the ethical questions raised by human cloning, particularly the concept of  “nature versus nurture.” Her work “Far Away,” published in 2000, creates a world permeated by fear and authoritarianism. 

“Caryl Churchill is a writer who is very prescient,” said Wolf. “If you know anything about the history of her writing, she’s always kind of one step ahead in terms of her concerns about the wider world … particularly Western society.  Certainly in her recent work, she’s looking into the crystal ball a little bit in terms of anticipating the next possible iteration of humanity.” 

Diamond described Churchill’s writing as “a complicated geometry,” as the play’s dialogue is self-referential and self-interrupting. As a director of the play and resident director of the Yale Rep overall, Diamond said that she had long been attracted to plays with language that require the “unpacking” of the playwright’s “poetic strategies.”

She called the play’s writing “virtuosic,” similar to the ways a great contemporary jazz piece is interspersed with repetitions and revisions. 

“One of the delicious opportunities of directing this play is to, much the way, say, an orchestra conductor would be required to do, open up the score of the writing,”  Diamond said. “The conversations are sort of interleaved. In the way that when you sit around with a big family or a bunch of old friends, and you know, nobody is playing the role of conversational referee. The conversations interleave break off, are picked up again later on.” 

The Yale Rep’s production of “Escaped Alone” holds personal significance for Diamond, as the show marks her first show since the start of the pandemic. Diamond said that her return to the stage was a “marvelous” feeling. 

Diamond described the process of working with stage and lighting designers as one full of “play.” After all, theater is all about grown-ups “playing make-believe,” she said. According to Diamond, the collaboration between sound, lighting and set design teams played an important role in bringing her conceptualization of the lush, verdant backyard to life. 

“An image that came to me when I was thinking a lot about this was the image of terrariums,” Diamond said. “People create these strange little ideal worlds that exist within a much bigger and quite chaotic world, the world we live in … This garden, it’s a refuge, as people’s private outdoor spaces are, but it sits in a rather vast and unaccommodating space. The universe, which is hurtling us toward we don’t know what, perhaps the end or the apocalypse or the strange outcome that awaits us, is in no small measure, part of our own making.”  

In a story that prophesies about the future, the central voices are the voices of women who are “at least seventy,” the script specifies. While she does not know the exact reasoning behind Churchill’s decision, this detail of the characters seems to be an intentional one, said Diamond. 

Churchill herself is in her mid-eighties and continues to be an “absolute powerhouse,” she said. The older age of the characters is an attractive facet of the play, Diamond said, as it offers tremendous roles for women of a certain age and highlights the beauty and resilience within aging. 

“These women who have lived so long contain universes of feeling, lived experience, unresolved conflicts, buried angers. They are great continents of lived experience and I think that they thus give Carol an opportunity to talk about our human condition and our relationship to mortality, to the world in which we live in and its mortality, and the role we seem to be playing in destroying life on Earth.” 

“Escaped Alone” is Caryl Churchill’s 43rd play to be produced and was published 58 years after her first play — “Downstairs” — in 1958.