'Far Away'

George W. Bush's presidency hasn't been especially accomplished, or ennobling, but it has turned out to be awfully fantastical. Almost by the month, things that once seemed barely imaginable became all too real: an election better suited to a banana republic than a mature democracy, airliners converted to lethal weapons (see also exploding sneakers, powdery letters of death), an American city left to drown. Though countless earnest dramatists made countless earnest attempts to respond to these events (including David Hare, Sam Shepard and, most regrettably, Tim Robbins), nobody has done a better job capturing the uniquely cataclysmic ways that life has gone screwy than the British playwright Caryl Churchill. In early 2001, she wrote "Far Away." Dark, disjointed and bizarre, it's essentially a nightmare in three scenes. And the more her play veers from recognizable reality, the more disturbingly exact a record of our time it becomes.

The story, like the decade, begins on a deceptively placid note. A girl named Joan tells her aunt that she can't sleep. Joan has heard shrieks, ventured outside and found people tied up in a shed. Aunt Harper assures her that her uncle is only trying to help the detainees, but the lie doesn't work. "He was hitting a man with a stick. I think the stick was metal," says Joan. "He hit one of the children." Before the brutality has been explained, Churchill skips ahead a few years. Now a young woman, Joan works in a shop designing hats so huge and ornate they'd make a pimp self-conscious. They are worn, we soon learn, by scraggly prisoners who are paraded before fashion judges on their way to execution. In the final scene, Churchill ventures even further into deadpan science fiction, as Joan and Harper discuss the shifting allegiances in a weird war that rages all around them. "The cats have come in on the side of the French," Harper reports. "The Bolivians are working with gravity," says Joan.

When the play reached New York in 2002, the final scene's vision of all-out war offered a twisted but true-to-life reflection of the paranoia we were feeling in those post-9/11 days. Six years later it speaks well of Churchill's prophetic powers that the other scenes now seem just as timely. The nighttime beatings that Joan witnesses (and the sorry excuses her aunt supplies) anticipate waterboarding, "stress positions," rendition. The hellish parade of hat-wearing prisoners now seems a grisly metaphor for the way that soldiers toyed—sometimes fatally—with inmates at Abu Ghraib.

Yet the real resonance of Churchill's play lies deeper than in eerie parallels. The arc of Joan's story reminds us how easy it is to forget the value of human life, how quickly we can become dehumanized ourselves. By the last scene, Joan tosses off the news that on her way to Harper's she's killed "two cats and a child under 5." The fact that we've fought two wars, abrogated a treaty here and there, and squandered the affection of much of the species doesn't necessarily mean that fashion-show executions are nigh. But after all the strange twists of the past eight years, we might wake up to a reality that's weirder still.