It is said that as your thoughts recede and disassemble with age, you revert to nursery rhymes and mnemonic verses and songs — things learned long ago and lodged so deeply in the soul that they stay put.
For the four mature female characters in “Escaped Alone,” Caryl Churchill’s dystopian one-act that opened over the weekend in a Frank Theatre staging at Gremlin Theater, the thing that they retain together is “Da Doo Ron Ron,” the 1963 hit by the Crystals co-written by Phil Spector.
The quartet, played by Cheryl Willis, Barbra Berlovitz, Janis Hardy and Maria Asp, delivers the pop song with joy and felicity. Before that, their conversation consisted of free associations and dead end thoughts. But the song gives them focus and a way back from the inevitable oblivion.
Really, the actors grow more youthful as they deliver the a cappella number. You can almost feel the light they’re holding onto before they’re swallowed by literal darkness.
Mortality is very much on the mind of Churchill, the 81-year-old British playwright known for tackling feminist themes and who is perhaps the playwright-saint of Frank. Under founder and director Wendy Knox, the company has produced more plays by Churchill than any other theater in town, including “Top Girls,” “Vinegar Tom” and “Love and Information.”
“Escaped,” written in 2016, is the first of two experimental Churchill one-acts in the production. The other is “Here We Go” (2015), which orbits a man post- and pre-death. Both are slight but potent. Separated by an intermission, these playlets evince a playwright still in her vigorous power, which is matched by Knox’s direction, Mike Wangen’s lighting and by Dan Dukich’s sonic scape.
The dialogue and monologues feel like dystopian poetry, both thrillingly Beckett-like but also maddeningly phlegmatic. “Escaped” is ironically titled. The play maps the process of thought itself. Kudos to this strong cast, for they deliver with gusto, even if “Escaped” feels like we’re lost at sea.
In fact, part of the reason the musical number becomes such a relief at the end of “Escaped” is that in a world of dislocation, it’s something beautiful and solid that we can hold onto.
Churchill uses the desire for relief in a different way in “Here We Go.” This one-act explores the afterlife according to various faith traditions and classic ideas of the afterlife. Actor Patrick Bailey plays the bare-chested dead man who is mourned before the action flashes back to his last days.
It is here that Churchill, matched by Knox’s steady and studied direction, shows her theatrical strength. Playing a nurse, Charla Marie Bailey dresses Patrick Bailey’s patient patiently. She puts on his shirt and socks and pants, then helps him to a walker as he takes about seven steps to a chair, sits for a few minutes, then signals that he wants to be undressed again. The slow, deliberate repetition induces in the audience exasperation and understanding.
No matter what’s on the other side of this life, this man has had enough and just wants to go. But the production leaves you with questions that linger.