Music by Polly Pen
Directed by Carolyn Cantor
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
Channeling a more introspective and agonized June Cleaver, Sara Jane (Alexandra Silber) has an on-the-surface pleasant dialogue with all that is beyond theatre’s conventional fourth wall. In “Arlington,” currently playing at the Vineyard Theatre, that includes directly engaging the audience and the Pianist (Ben Moss) who appears behind an upstage scrim and not only accompanies Sara Jane’s non-stop singing but also succeeds in his own extrasensory skills channeling Sara Jane’s military husband Jerry. Although Sara Jane momentarily denies she is singing – “No, I’m just—I’m kidding! I’m kidding! I’m not singing” – she is immersed in a full blown operetta. And Victor Lodato’s book (libretto) and Polly Pen’s music shake the Vineyard and its inhabitants to a transformative and soul-purging existential crisis.
Sara Jane’s arias, recitatives and, occasionally her duets with the Pianist, tell the dramatic story of a young woman on the brink of a discovery about self identity, national and global identity, and the fragility of future. The delivery of these discoveries in song enables Sara Jane to distance herself from the message she delivers to the audience and enables the audience to shelter itself from the enormity of that message. In fact, Sara considers the members of the audience she addresses directly to be strangers: “Talking to strangers! I mean, who are you anyway? Good people, bad people. You never know.”
Addressing the audience is therapeutic for Sara Jane. Her sung-through psychoanalytic session strips away layers of consciousness disclosing her struggles with her mother, her struggles with success, her doubts about her husband’s commitment, and her angst over a variety of geopolitical shenanigans (including war). Sara has difficulty getting her mind around what she discovers including the images of war her husband has sent her as attachments to his email messages from battle.
A significant recitative in “Arlington” concerns these images of war. “Children running. Foreigners but, I mean they were kids. Some were bleeding, I don’t know, it was hard to… I couldn’t really get my head
around it. Some of the children were dragging other children. Trying to carry them. And someone was screaming.” Sara struggles with what is happening with the war and she is not sure it is what it is supposed to be.
Sara Jane does not like it when people change. She does not like it when her mother has plastic surgery. She does not like how her husband has changed in war (or has he?). She is not even completely comfortable with the change which her pregnancy has caused. “I want my baby!/ But what can I tell him? What kind of lullaby will do? What can I tell him? Innocent people die in a war? No—they’re killed! Why do people lie? Why do people lie? My husband killed those women/ My husband killed those children.”
Sara Jane’s virtual visit to the National Cemetery at Arlington, like her introspective journey, results in a rediscovery of self, a reaffirmation of her strength as a woman and a future mother, and her ability to navigate an unfamiliar world. She and the audience members are strangers in a strange land (literally and figuratively). Under Carolyn Cantor’s brooding and introspective direction Ms. Silber’s and Mr. Moss’ dangerous liaisons with veracity call into question all preconceived notions of love, relationships, and conflict. This brooding nature is matched perfectly by Dane Laffrey’s set, Tyler Micoleau’s lighting, and the sound design by Dan Moses Schreier.
“I mean how do you ever really know/ Another person? Really know them. Some afternoons I just sit here. I watch the light move across the wall. It moves from one side of the room to the other. You really don’t even see it move. It sort of creeps, like a clock. It moves when you turn away. And then all of a sudden it’s late. It’s dark. (Women and children. Little black bugs. All burned.) When my brother died,
My mother switched from drinking Whites to drinking reds.”
The Pianist dies not accompany the singer. The piano is as much a character as the one who plays it. At one point, Sara plays the piano in her living room and has a dialogue with the offstage piano and player. The dialogue results in terrifying realizations. “But what you have to realize is/ Innocent people/ Always die/ In a war.” “Men can’t afford to be/ Gentle, especially/ A soldier./ I mean, people are a mystery.”
“Arlington” affirms the mysteries of all things human and challenges the audience to determine how it will “switch things up” when confronted with all those things that creep across our lives and have the potential to leave us in outer darkness.