The gut-wrenching turmoil of life as an army wife takes the form of an hour-long recitative in Arlington, now playing off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre. Soulful soprano Alexandra Silber bears most of the scrutiny of the magnifying glass that playwright Victor Lodato has placed up to her character, Sara Jane, whose husband, Jerry, has gone off to fight the war in the Middle East. Over the course of 24 hours, Sara Jane frenetically traverses her plush, finely manicured living room (designed by Dane Laffrey), rambling on about everything from her childhood singing lessons to her mother's affinity for plastic surgery. Slowly revealed over this time is the toll that war and its many ambiguities have taken on her mental and emotional fortitude during the endless wait for her husband's return.
Composer Polly Pen has designed music to weave through Lodato's text. From the moment Silber flits onstage in her bright pink sundress and cardigan (selected by costume designer Jess Goldstein), the lyric score hardly offers her a moment to catch her breath, though, admirably, Silber never shows signs of vocal fatigue. Pen's amelodic music successfully marks the piece's many shifts in tone — from Sara Jane's perky entrance to her darkest moments contemplating war's cruelest crimes. Unfortunately, Pen's compositions are not nearly as aurally pleasing as they are theatrically functional. You find yourself impatiently awaiting the brief moments where the music stops and Silber is allowed to quietly speak a few poignant lines to the audience. Silber's fierce command of the stage shines through in these rare instances — though they simultaneously draw attention to how distracting the unrelentingly high-pitched wall of sound has become.
The one gift Pen's music does give us is Silber's onstage accompanist Ben Moss, who eerily portrays the various military men in Sara Jane's life from behind an ethereal upstage scrim. Director Carolyn Cantor builds an intriguing tension between the two as Moss, with his smooth tenor voice, sporadically enters and exits the story, intermittently coming in and out of focus amid shifts of Tyler Micoleau's scrim-enveloped lighting. Moss depicts Sara Jane's domineering husband and father — soldiers of different generations who have conditioned her to be the meek, obliging individual we now see onstage. While her husband paints a gruesome picture of his wartime experiences with nonchalant cell-phone photos of innocent casualties, Sara Jane's father harks back to a romanticized image of military life, sternly repeating the phrase "History. We're born in history" — the mantra that has been drilled into his daughter's head since her childhood trip to Arlington cemetery.
Silber bravely unravels before our eyes as these incessant thoughts and memories force her to question the philosophies that have long been part of her mental and emotional fabric. Though Lodato's script does not raise any moral questions about the nature of war that have not been explored many times before, he and Pen have developed a unique and compelling theatrical approach to addressing these unsolvable riddles. Much of Sara Jane's rapid-fire commentary may wash over you in a wave of monotonous tones and rhythms, but one or two of these confounding seeds are sure to plant themselves in your mind before you leave the theater.