Tracy Lynn Olivera and Austin Colby in Crossing at Arlington, Virginia's Signature Theatre.
Tracy Lynn Olivera and Austin Colby in Crossing at Arlington, Virginia's Signature Theatre.
(© Teresa Wood)

What if? This is the question that eight people, seemingly from different decades of the 20th century, ponder as they sit together at a train station, reflecting on different parts of their lives in the musical Crossing, currently making its world premiere at Signature Theatre.

There's the Great Depression businessman (Chris Sizemore) who questions his life, the civil rights marcher (Ines Nassara) who wants to make Harriet Tubman proud, an elderly woman from 1977 (Florence Lacey), frantically questioning why her daughter is coming to visit (hint: it has to do with Jim Jones and his cult), and the present-day backpacker (Christopher Mueller) who uses his tablet to learn French before his journey to Europe. There's also two sets of mothers and sons, one an English transplant to America (Tracy Lynn Olivera) and her young boy (John Ray), circa 1954, who simply sit and watch the trains go by; the other is a 1917 World War I-era mother (Peggy Yates), waiting to send her soldier son (Austin Colby) off to war.

What is it that binds these eight people? Is the setting really a metaphor for some sort of afterlife? Is it a Twilight Zone-inspired new dimension? Do the eight represent different parts of the same person? Spoiler alert: Who knows?, as by musical's end, there's no clear explanation.

It's a shame, too, because the possibilities for explaining the connections could have added that "wow" factor or at least brought some credibility to Grace Barnes' book, which seemed to be off track from the get-go. When the young boy asks, "Where does time go when it runs out?," there's hope that the answer will somehow make this all make sense. Sadly, that answer never comes.

Confusing matters even more is a ninth character called "Unknown Woman" (Nova Y. Payton), whose purpose at the station seems nothing more than an easy way for characters to provide exposition. Again, had she been some sort of linking force (like the rare butterfly the characters encounter throughout the story), perhaps her presence would be warranted, but the purpose of this presence is clouded in ambiguity.

There are some tender exchanges between characters, with Olivera showing great chemistry with Colby, Ray, and Mueller, but each time you start to get invested in a character, the plot derails and goes somewhere less interesting.

Somewhat of a saving grace are the songs themselves, with tender music and telling lyrics by Matt Conner. Nassara delivers the standout performance in the duet "Follow the Drinking Gourd," while Sizemore's "Passing" brings an unexpected vulnerability to his character.

Directed by Signature's artistic director and staple Eric Schaeffer, the characters immediately grab your attention, as they stand by or sit on the set's benches as theatergoers are first finding their way to their seats. Visually, this gets people right in the mood and the long railroad track in front of them seems to promise a journey worth taking. But unlike the train that never comes, neither does any semblance of a story.

What if, indeed.