Review: "Far Away" Hits Close to Home

 Far Away

Written by Caryl Churchill

Directed by Cheryl Faraone

Presented by PTP/NYC via YouTube

October 15-18, 2020

Nesba Crenshaw (Harper), Ro Boddie (Todd), and Caitlin Duffy (Joan) 

PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project), in association with Middlebury College, has been presenting its thirty-fourth season virtually, and Caryl Churchill's 2000 play Far Away concludes this season. These performances, presented via PTP/NYC's YouTube channel, have been free, but not only are any donations welcomed by PTP/NYC but 10% of all donations benefit the National Black Theatre, the oldest continuously-operated Black theater in New York City. Assured and entertaining, PTP/NYC's production of Churchill's absurdist indictment of human violence, oppression, and tribalism feels powerfully relevant to our present moment.

The play opens with a close-up of an eye, then eyes, suggesting the themes of witnessing, secrecy, and perspective to follow. Far Away, which comes in at under an hour, is divided into three sections, each divided by several years. In the first, Harper (Nesba Crenshaw) is putting her young niece, Joan (Lilah May Pfeiffer), to bed, but Joan admits that she has seen some things that she shouldn't have, which Harper tries to obfuscate and spin. (We should all ask as many questions in the face of authority's narratives as young Joan.) The second section finds Joan (Caitlin Duffy), now an adult, with a job making hats. As she gets to know her coworker, Todd (Ro Boddie), we hear about worsening work conditions and corruption, and the dystopian implications around the edges of the conversation grow a little stronger; a remark about winning hats going to the museum recalls the way that the school—for cloned children destined to have their organs harvested—in the dystopian England of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go encourages artistic competition as a means of pacification and control. Joan proves still to be something of a squeaky wheel and a seeker of secrets, an attribute that remains but is perhaps reduced in the final section. The conclusion of the play dials up both the dystopianism and absurdism with a war of, literally, all against all. Joan has walked away, again literally, from this all-engulfing war, at least for a day, which Harper is not happy about, and Harper and Todd debate allegiances and the attributes of their allies and enemies in a way that is both pointed and dryly hilarious.   

Caitlin Duffy (Joan) and Ro Boddie (Todd)
Far Away speaks incisively to the centrality of controlling perspective to controlling people, whether through misrepresentation, such as Harper's calling hurting helping; distraction, such as the parades and trials referenced as entertainment; or stereotyping—we learn, for instance, a lot about Harper and Todd's views on cats. The play's Heller-meets-Beckett world is sketched allusively enough to support a wide range of allegorical readings--it's actually surprising at times that Far Away debuted before the War on Terror, but maybe that just highlights the perpetuation of the attitudes that the play critiques. In embodying this world, the entire cast delivers admirable performances invested with humanity and deadpan humor (as a bonus, the two Joans, Pfeiffer and Duffy, do bear a convincing resemblance).

Far Away is only streaming for a limited time, so put on your fanciest hat and settle in for PTP/NYC's latest before its run, along with the company's season, comes to a close.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards
 

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