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Nothing is as its seems in Far Away, a chilling new 50-minute political play by British playwright Caryl Churchill (Cloud Nine and Top Girls), playing now through June 19th at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham, NC. In the first of three strange and wonderful scenes, all set in the present in a rural section of an unnamed country, what at first seems to be a comfy country cottage at night, with birdsong in the air and a rustic grandmother making notes in a cozy corner chair, turns out to be a busy terminus — the final destination for some sort of Final Solution a la Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin, or the former Yugoslavia during its recent forays into ethnic cleansing.
In addition to the birdsong, there is a faint hum of tires on pavement as a series of trucks unloads its unhappy human cargo behind the cottage. Although it is the middle of the night, all the noise awakens Joan (Alison Hinks), a city-bred child visiting her aunt and uncle in the country. Joan soon sees much more than she should.
When she questions her beloved Aunt Harper (Manbites Dog mainstay Marcia Edmundson) about all the unpleasant and alarming details of her nightmare experience, the older woman skillfully quiets her concern, but is hard-pressed to put an innocent spin on all of the horrifying events that Joan has observed. After all, the child has the blood of the prisoners on her feet and a chill in her heart.
In the second scene, set in a hat-making shop in an unnamed city, a grownup Joan (also played by Alison Hinks) and a friendly co-worker named Todd (Michael DiBiasio) make tall, grotesque, elaborately decorated hats to be worn by the prisoners that she first saw unloaded in her aunt's backyard so many years ago. If there were ghoulish fashion shows in Auschwitz, they must have looked something like this.
The final scene, in which Joan goes AWOL from her job and returns to her aunt's country cottage, raises a number of troubling questions. And Far Away, which combines the endemic paranoia of George Orwell's 1984 with a dash of the ultimate horror of "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson and a sprinkling of the Theatre of the Absurd a la Eugene Ionesco, provides no answers. Far Away is an unnerving theater experience — by design — and the timing of the current Manbites Dog presentation will mix recent memories of the American abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib with nightmarish recollections of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century.
Manbites Dog guest director Devon Allen of Our Shoes Are Red, a Pennsylvania-based theater laboratory, and assistant director Kevin Poole confidently stage Far Away, so that it remains an enigma. (Properly done, as it is here, Far Away always provokes many, many more questions than it answers.) Costume and hat designer Derrick Ivey does a masterful job, and so do set and lighting designer Brian Slocum and sound designer Steve Piccione.
Alison Hinks is superb in the dual roles of Joan the curious child and Joan the initially eager but later confused grownup. Matt DiBiasio is good as Joan's co-worker and confidant Todd, who later becomes her boyfriend; and Marcia Edmundson adds to her reputation as one of the Triangle's most imaginative and resourceful actresses with her compelling performance as Harper, the dear aunt whose amiable exterior conceals a heart of ice — pure ice.
Manbites Dog Theater, in association with Our Shoes Are Red, presents Far Away Thursday-Saturday, June 10-12 and 17-19, at 8:15 p.m. at Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina. $10 on Thursday and $15 Friday-Sunday. 919/682-3343 or http://www.tix.com/Schedule.asp?OrganizationNumber=150 [inactive 8/04]. Manbites Dog Theater: http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/2/.