Rolling thunder announces the beginning of Arlington, Victor Lodato’s portrait of a military wife’s attempt to reconcile love with the horrors of war. Tellingly, his protagonist Sara Jane (Alexandra Silber) is “not a rain person,” and as the show opens we find her in her living room rushing to close the windows and blot out the storm. When she returns, presumably the next day, the room is sun-filled and cheery. But while Sara Jane can ignore conditions outside her door, she finds it more difficult to disregard the turmoil waging inside herself.
In Arlington, Sara Jane tells — or rather, sings — that story. Accompanied by Ben Moss on piano, Silber delivers a conversational, operatic monodrama directly to the audience. Silber, who proved her singing chops in Broadway’s Master Class and the Transport Group’s Hello Again, skillfully navigates Polly Pen’s challenging score and Lodato’s wordy, sometimes clunky, lyrics. Over the course of a day, some minor events unfold: Sara Jane cooks, she hosts her mother for dinner, and she drinks and gets drunk. The real journey, though, takes place within Sara Jane’s mind. The show’s dramatic arc, therefore, is driven by the slow build of her confession, an evolution from denial to painful transparency with the audience as confidant and judge.
At first, as she flits about the house, Sara Jane seems a comic, if slightly cloying, character. When she talks about the war her husband Jerry is fighting overseas, it’s in the uncritical, almost antiquated terms of a half-oblivious but concerned wife. The questions she raises are complex, but Sara Jane’s answers, at least initially, are a frustrating mix of flip resignation and cheerful ignorance. The war? “It hardly seems real, you know. I mean, is it a war, isn’t it a war,” she says. “I don’t know what to think about the situation.” Violent dispatches on television? “Children running…some were bleeding, I don’t know…I couldn’t really get my head around it.” Loss of innocent lives? “Some of yours die and some of theirs die. Sometimes the cost is innocent people, even children and their mothers. It’s unfortunate.”
Bit by bit, however, Sara Jane hints at a greater awareness and deeper concerns. In recounting conversations with her husband and her mother, she draws attention to the aggression and racism they harbor for Arabs. And in describing a childhood trip to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with her family, we get some insight into the origins of her self-effacement: “Keep quiet. Be meek. It’s not your job to think about the war or the problems of the world. You could never understand what men must do,” Sara Jane’s father, voiced by Moss, tells her.
Indeed, Sara Jane’s is a mind governed by contradictions, insecurities and deeply ingrained patriarchal attitudes. Her increasing alarm about the war, alongside her inability to overcome those attitudes, form the heart, and tragedy, of Arlington. Even as Sara Jane recognizes the moral and intellectual failings of those she loves, her attachments to those people prevent her from acting.
But as Sara Jane starts to articulate her own shortcomings, Arlington inches uncomfortably close to melodrama. Sara Jane weeps and wails, and an over-the-top scenic change along with a too-obvious revelation make ostentatious tugs at heartstrings. It’s almost enough to make us question our sympathy. And that’s unfortunate. Sara Jane’s predicament was poignant enough to have made its own case. It didn’t need the theatrics.