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Far Away

Presented by Genesis West. At Center Stage Theater, Saturday, March 18. Shows through April 1.

It’s hard to know what to make of controversial writer Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, the second production in Genesis West’s season at Center Stage. On one hand, the play is a biting satire of war (aimed, one can only suspect, at the conflict in Iraq); on the other, it’s a haunting look at the perils of raising children in a paranoid, trigger-happy society.

The premise is simple. Sometime in the future, the world is engaged in total war. And not just people — flora, fauna, even the weather have been personified and asked to take sides. (“I didn’t know if it was on our side or theirs,” one character said of a river as she crossed it. “Whether it would drown me or help me.”) It is in this shaky environment that Joan (played in her younger years by Annie Z. Spirka, with Tiffany Rose Brown as the elder) comes of age. After accidentally witnessing her guerilla-fighter uncle’s brutality toward an enemy group, the unsuspecting Joan is forced to accept — even embrace — conflict.

As the little girl, 15-year-old Spirka embodies a child’s fright and, more importantly, the realization that her world has been suddenly and irrevocably turned upside-down by the effects of war. Allison Coutts-Jordan and Chris Turner ably portray Joan’s aunt and camouflage-clad boyfriend. But the triumph here is Brown’s, the UCSB drama student whose presence injects life into this dreary tale. She’s asked to be vivacious in one scene, as Joan happily aids the war effort. Yet by the end of the play, as apocalypse quickly approaches, her character is lifeless, broken. Brown effectively conveys this transformation.

Genesis West’s production never lags under the direction of Maurice Lord. It’s quick, too, clocking in at a mere 50 minutes. Working within a small space, the designers have created a nifty rotating set which takes the Center Stage from woodsy cottage to big-city factory and back. Still, the show’s main attractions are groovy costume hats, some several feet tall and wide. Midway through the action, Far Away comes to a standstill as a parade of extras creep down stage, each wearing a hat. They’re the dead victims of the apocalypse, and the headpieces are their burial charms.

Churchill’s work, performed off-Broadway in 2002, requires serious thought. Take the title, for example. Do the characters want to be “far away” from what they’re experiencing? Does the plot take place on earth, or are these atrocities happening “far away” from us today? (Think Baghdad.) It’s unclear, but one wonders.

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