Portraits of love, loss, grief, and courage are painted in the latest production of Inner Voices, a collection of three short solo musicals at the 30th Street Theater. Like most evenings that feature multiple items on the bill, the selections in Inner Voices are not all triumphs, but each contains the same primary virtue: a remarkably acted and sung performance.
The brain child of Premieres' artistic director Paulette Haupt, Inner Voices, which has previously been seen in 2008 and 2010, matches writers and composers to create a thirty minute piece told from a single point of view. In Martin Moran and Joseph Thalken's Borrowed Dust, the least successful of the three pieces, George Richardson, (Hunter Foster), has recently returned to his home in New York after seeing off the ashes of his younger brother, Gabe, who has died in a hiking accident. As George reflects on a life where familial togetherness wasn't always an option, we come to realize that most of his guilt lies in the fact that he and his "bro" just weren't very close.
As guided by director Jonathan Butterell, Foster gives one of his strongest performances to date, aided by an emotionally resonant quiver in his voice and a thoroughly fraught, yet stalwart smile. But the actor is let down by Moran's book and lyrics, a by-the-numbers look at the seven stages of grief, and a needlessly complicated score by Thalken.
More successful is Arlington, written by Polly Pen (music) and Victor Lodato (book and lyrics), in which Alexandra Silber plays Sara Jane, an army wife desperate for companionship while her husband is overseas. When we first meet her, she's a Chatty Cathy, eager to talk about anything, no matter how inane, if only to get her mind off her loneliness. As the weeks pass -- and with the help of too much alcohol -- Sara Jane becomes a startling shell of her former self, as the loneliness, confusion, and powerlessness become too strong for her to endure.
Lodato and Pen have written a fascinating character study, with each scene peeling off another layer of the woman's personality, while the music changes in tone from lighthearted and upbeat to dark and dissonant as time progresses. Director Jack Cummings III guides the first-rate Silber through a remarkably nuanced and gorgeously sung performance that ably conveys the mile-a-minute feelings that rush through Sara Jane's head with reckless abandon. The piece ends with a stunning rendition of Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer" that is so thrillingly performed that you'll be left on the edge of your seat.
Farhad or The Secret of Being, directed by Saheem Ali, is not only the most intriguing of the three pieces, it is the only one that could actively benefit from being expanded into a full-length musical. Featuring a book and lyrics by Pulitzer Prize winner Nilo Cruz and music by Jim Bauer, the work stars Arielle Jacobs as the titular character, a young Afghan girl who, after spending most of her childhood living as a boy (which she does for the opportunities that come with being a male in that country), must transition back into her female self in order to be married off to a much older man.
In its own way, Farhad is just as much of a psychological study as Arlington, but here we watch sadness and anger grow into hope and acceptance. Cruz doesn't shy away from the important questions raised by the story, such as Farhad's concern that her Almighty won't recognize her as a woman or why women in Afghanistan are treated with such disrespect.
Equally important, Bauer and Cruz's score, orchestrated for percussion, guitar, and oud, is particularly exciting, with intelligent lyrics and an authentic-feeling sound. Jacobs expertly conveys a pre-teen's vast array of confusion and lack of understanding about decisions that not only have been made without her consultation, but ones she knows she'll never be privy to making herself.