Though it's been a hub for new plays for 47 years, San Francisco's Magic Theatre doesn't do a lot of musicals. But it's doing one right now with the world premiere of Arlington, a one-act piece by returning playwright Victor Lodato, whose plays The Eviction and 3F, 4F debuted at the Magic.
Arlington is almost more of an opera than a musical, because it's delivered almost entirely in song, with only the occasional spoken line for effect. It's also very nearly a solo piece, the musical monologue of young military wife Sara Jane as she waits for her husband to come home from Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever. But pianist Jeff Pew is a constant presence as well, occasionally speaking or singing a line as absent husband Jerry or as Sara Jane's father in a long-ago memory. Some sections function as distinct songs, sometimes even with a blackout between them, while others simply meander with Sara Jane making conversation.
Jackson Gay's staging makes frequent and effective use of Jeff Rowlings' lights (and especially of darkness) to set the mood. In the beginning, Pew's piano is almost entirely drowned out by Sara Huddleston's booming sounds of thunder, rain and wind. The whole play takes place in Sara Jane's living room, captured by just a few furnishings in Erik Flatmo's elegantly spare set: a comfy chair with matching ottoman, and two pianos -- one for her and one for Pew.
Analisa Leaming in Arlington
Sara Jane (the resemblance of her name to a long-running Doctor Who character is probably mere coincidence) chats away at us as if we're an old friend who's just stopped in for a visit. When her mother comes by, we skip that part and then catch up with her immediately afterward, as she tells us how it went. The usual "Who are you talking to?" effect that often comes up in monologues is even addressed in a sly way at one point, when Sara Jane looks at us and says, "Who are you, anyway?" But nothing ever comes of it; it's just an aside that ties into a recurring theme about how strangers are scary and we're all ultimately strangers, sometimes even to ourselves.
Sara Jane is relentlessly upbeat in a way that's both very funny and deeply touching in Analisa Leaming's portrayal. She's constantly trying to clarify something she just said so that we don't get the wrong idea about her. Lodato's lyrics make her chatter often hilariously inane, as she talks about how she doesn't understand why women would even want to be soldiers and tries to justify the deaths of innocent children in war. But at the same time, the darkness she struggles against with her sunny outlook is always visible just beneath the surface. Although she always speaks of Jerry adoringly, every single thing we hear that he has said to her makes him sound like a dominating jerk, and Pew chillingly embodies that whenever he delivers one of the husband's lines. "Jerry says I'm a stick," Sara Jane sings. "'I could break you in two pieces -- snap!' He's so funny."
Leaming sharply captures both the character's fragility and her flighty veneer of cockeyed optimism, and her singing is superb, trilling and clear as a bell. The music by Polly Pen is often a delight, sharp and playful and quirky, and Lodato's lyrics are awfully charming and clever. Sara Jane used to take singing very seriously, but she says she never sings anymore, which both sadly speaks volumes about her constricted life and is a cute little joke in itself, because of course she's singing continuously throughout the hour-long show.
Jeff Pew in Arlington
Unfortunately, the play becomes a bit less interesting as it rolls on. An account of a childhood visit to Arlington National Cemetery (the "title track" of the musical, as it were) doesn't carry nearly the emotional resonance that it seems intended to have, although it leads into a compelling section about knowing her "place." Referencing an earlier childhood ditty that Sara Jane shared with us, the closing song is so abstractly poetic that it feels more like an unrelated encore than anything meant to bring closure to Sara Jane's emotional journey.
Ultimately the piece works better as a character sketch than as a narrative. There's certainly a progression for Sara Jane over the course of the hour, but it all comes down to making explicit the cracks in her cheery facade that have been evident from the start. We get a sense of how she's always been underestimated and infantalized by the men in her life who tell her it's not her role to have opinions on things. And certainly, the more we hear things her family says, the more they spark a sense of moral outrage.
The trouble is, this also feels condescending to Sara Jane, accounting for all her opinions and attitudes as unwise received wisdom, reducing her personality to mere pathology. It would be one thing if this musical were premiering anywhere but in comfortably liberal San Francisco, anyplace where people might even consider that Sara Jane's whole life might be anything but woefully mistaken. But as it is, our sympathy for her is as distanced as her feelings for the dead foreign children she sees in photos that her husband sends her. It's terrible, the things that happen to people we believe are not like us.
Arlington runs through December 8, 2013 at Magic Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit magictheatre.org.
All photos by Jennifer Reiley.