Since performances began last month of "Far Away," Caryl Churchill's beautiful and peculiar portrait in shorthand of the wanton cruelty visited on the powerless, audiences at Studio Theatre have come out asking a lot of questions. But one in particular, says Artistic Director Joy Zinoman, seems to perplex those who have seen the play:

Why the hats?

Hats are not merely a costume choice in the 45-minute play, which has been staged by Zinoman with an almost compulsive attention to detail. They are a decorative accessory to horror. Fifty outlandish hats adorn the heads of a small army of performers who march, single file, across the stage. Where all these mysterious, mute characters are going answers a wrenching riddle at the center of "Far Away," and the six-minute parade in which they display their bizarre headwear constitutes what may well be the most mesmerizing scene on a local stage this season.

The images, Zinoman says, have had a profound effect on audiences, startling and moving some, baffling and infuriating others. Again and again, she's asked by playgoers about the eclectic, exotic bonnets. "They want to know, why the metaphor of hats," the director explains. "And the answer is, I don't know."

Told primarily through the experience of a young woman named Joan, "Far Away" tracks, somewhat enigmatically, a society somewhere -- maybe far away, maybe close by -- spiraling into chaos. It begins with Joan as a young girl, played by Simone Grossman, asking a kindly older woman (Mikel Sarah Lambert) about a violent event that she has witnessed, an act that bears the earmarks of a war crime: She relates observing her uncle brutalizing a group of people, refugees perhaps, in the back of a truck. (In light of the recent revelations about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, the play gains an even more painful currency.)

In the ensuing sequences, Joan is a young woman, now played by Holly Twyford. She works in a hat factory, toiling with her co-worker, Todd (Matthew Montelongo), over eccentric millinery. At a worktable rendered with extraordinary precision by set designer Debra Booth, they compete to create the most wildly imaginative hat. And the uses the hats will be put to, in the shocking parade yet to come, puts the bland scenes of meticulous hatmaking in terrifying context.

Twenty-five performers don the hats; each person cycles onto the stage twice. The hats are a couturier's menagerie. Some are architectural marvels; others are covered in coq feathers and other gaudy plumage; still others are whimsically decorated with discarded sunglasses or kitchen utensils.

But why hats? "I asked the same question," says Ted Stumpf, brought in as "hat consultant" for Studio's production. Stumpf worked on the New York Theatre Workshop's version of the play, and 20 of the hats in the Studio production were also used in Manhattan. Thirty new ones were built for Studio, under the supervision of designer Helen Q. Huang by a team consisting of Stumpf, Brandee Mathies and Angela Chavez.

Stumpf's take on the purpose of the hats? It's their superficiality, the idea of employing an item of vanity in the service of evil. "It's because hats are frivolous and unnecessary," he says. "They don't serve a function other than beauty."

Since each hat would be glimpsed only for a minute or so, the impact had to be visceral. Zinoman wanted an industrial look to some of the hats; others were to reflect a refined sense of high fashion. The hats were to be as varied as the heads on which they sat. "The point is the range," she says. To Mathies, the point was to dazzle the eye.

"What I wanted you to think," he says, "is, 'What was that?' "

A prisoner wears one of the hats in "Far Away." The main character works in an unusual millinery.Costume shop manager Brandee Mathies, right, costume designer Helen Q. Huang and consultant Ted Stumpf brought 50 hats to "Far Away."Two of the hats featured in Studio Theatre's production. Artistic Director Joy Zinoman wanted the millinery to provide a visceral impact.