This sense of mannerly unfolding, the genteel calm before the obliterating storm, makes the local debut of Caryl Churchill’s 2017 play, guided here with clarity and wit by director Holly Twyford, a particular dark pleasure. It is possible, it seems, for human beings to live in a gauzy approximation of normalcy, with the cares of ordinary existence distracting us from the doom gathering strength on the other side of our ivy-covered walls.
And who better to elucidate this absurdity than these accomplished women, who allow us to hear both their chatter and their inner monologues and to feel utterly at ease? The entirety of the design team is female, too, with set designer Paige Hathaway constructing a smart, verdant suburban patio and costume designer Alison Samantha Johnson outfitting the actresses in dandy bourgeois style.
The play runs its course in the time it takes to empty a teapot or two, just 50 minutes, and for the women to prattle on, completing each other’s thoughts and filling in details about one member’s troubled past. Though a measure of understated anxiety suffuses the garden party, the old acquaintances are relaxed enough to break into a silly impromptu rendition of the Petula Clark hit from the ’60s, “Downtown.”
Intermingled with these everyday interludes, though, are the jarring segues to Leonard, appearing in front of the closed curtain and reciting a litany of environmental calamities. We are hearing what sound like chapter headings in the story of climate change. Churchill, author of such probing pieces about science and politics gone haywire as “A Number” and “Far Away,” here presents the degradation of the world as an absurdist word salad of biblical horrors. Intimations of floods and starvation and disease are served up as a counterpoint to the Darjeeling and biscuits.
“The chemicals leaked through cracks in the money,” the actress tells us, as she reels off the disasters. “Cars were traded for used meat.”
Endings of all sorts, and none especially happy, are what “Escaped Alone” catalogues. Twyford, an actress of note herself, has been taking on more directorial assignments over the past few years, and this one proves to be her most assured and successful outing yet. As one of the featured players in Studio Theatre’s “Far Away” in the mid-2000s, she’s been well acquainted for some time with Churchill’s virtuosic stage vernacular. She lends that expertise beneficially to her cast, whose convergence on the stage of Signature’s smaller space, the Ark, gives off the sensation of a warm and overdue reunion.
Cleary, Flye, Hedman and Leonard are in such gratifying synch that you forget at times how terrifyingly close to the precipice “Escaped Alone” means to dangle us. Then again, distraction is how we all get by, isn’t it?
, by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Holly Twyford. Set, Paige Hathaway; costumes, Alison Samantha Johnson; lighting, Maria Shaplin; sound, Victoria Deiorio. About 50 minutes. $40-$90. Through Nov. 3 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. 703-820-9771. sigtheatre.org.