Playwright & Composer Sculpt Affecting Character in Magic’s “Arlington”

by Jean Schiffman

Victor Lodato and Polly Pen collaborate on a new musical, inspired by a 1940s Life photograph.

Sara Jane has been haunting Victor Lodato for a long time.

She is the central character—for all intents and purposes the only character—in the playwright/poet/novelist’s new musical, “Arlington.”

Lodato was struck by a Life magazine photo he’d seen, from the 1940s, in which a woman is looking at the skull of a Japanese soldier, sent by her husband as a war trophy. “I wanted to imagine what it was like for a wife—hearing about all these atrocities on the news and trying to understand and justify the actions of her husband—to contemplate what this really means,” Lodato says, on the phone from Ashland, his temporary home prior to arriving in San Francisco for the world premiere of “Arlington” this month at the Magic Theatre.

About a year after he saw the photo, a voice came into his head, and that voice was Sara Jane’s. This is normally the way his plays begin, with a voice and a character (he’s written more than a dozen, two of which, “3F, 4F” and “The Eviction,” premiered here at the Magic). “It’s a mystery to me where they come from,” he says; his 2009, prize-winning debut novel, “Mathilda Savitch,” also began with a female—in that case a girl’s—voice. He followed the music of Sara Jane’s distinctive, appealing voice for a while, and it led him to the totality of her psychology and life. “If I were to try to start with an issue, I’d trip myself up,” he says.

At first Sara Jane figured in a 10-minute monologue. After that Lodato wrote a full-length monologue for her, “Dear Sara Jane,” imagining her as lovely, youthful, a little ditsy, a little quirky, “like watching an animal onstage—you never know what she’s going to do or say next.”

Then a few years ago Paulette Haupt, of the New York company Premieres, commissioned him to collaborate with composer Polly Pen and turn “Dear Sara Jane” into a half-hour solo musical. Pen, who lives in New York, and Lodato, who was living in Tucson at the time, knew of each other—both are highly acclaimed in their respective fields—but had never met, nor had Lodato ever written a musical. But this seemed a perfect fit to him: The drama of the play is inside Sara Jane’s head, so, he says, “Music seems a good way to find the … shifts in consciousness.”

Polly Pen agrees. On the phone from her home in upstate New York’s Hudson Valley, she says, “In this, I had to become the character—it’s a job for a composer who is also an actor [an Obie Award winner for the score of “Bed and Sofa,” Pen has also acted on and off Broadway and in regional theaters]. This is largely the voice of one character, and it’s through-composed. She’s a character who doesn’t seem to know whether she’s singing or not, a fascinating way of thinking for a musical, defying some accepted notions of what a musical may be.”

So, re-imagined, with a changed storyline and a new title, the first “Arlington” was produced by Premieres. Now, revised and expanded, it is directed by esteemed New York director Jackson Gay and will continue on to New York. In it, Sara Jane (Analisa Leaming) addresses the audience directly, singing (and occasionally speaking) her way through a long day and night of the soul that begins with a vicious thunderstorm and continues through changes of weather and mood toward a sort of awakening of the heart and mind.

It hardly seems real, you know.
I mean is it a war,
Isn’t it a war.
I don’t know what to think.
About the situation.

Alone in her living room, in a sort of stream-of-consciousness filled with twists and turns, she struggles to come to terms with what is happening in the faraway desert where her beloved husband, Jerry, is fighting. He sends her letters and pictures; she sings, “Oh Jerry, I write, Don’t tell me that!” She is accompanied by Jeffrey Pew, as pianist and briefly as Jerry and as Sara Jane’s father. “The pianist,” according to Lodato’s stage directions, “may … exist,
essentially, only in Sara Jane’s mind.”

To turn Sara Jane into a singing character, Lodato had to break down the script to shorter sentences and structure it more poetically, but not as a collection of songs. “The singing is really just the dramatic conceit to give form to this woman’s way of thinking—we’re taking her babble to a heightened, dramatic place,” he says. “And the music Polly created inspired me to refine the text more, to tighten it.”

During the initial phase of development, the two rarely met, relying on emails, phone calls and MP3s. “That helped me to see that the music could carry a lot of the subtext,” says Lodato, “and it was really exciting for me to create something so rigorously spare, but complex.” Writing for song reawakened his poetic impulses toward text that is clear, lean and exacting.

“This play takes place at a moment when Sara Jane is for the first time venturing out of what’s passed down to her [from her military family],” he goes on, “and asking certain questions … What will be fun is the dynamic between Sara Jane and the audience. She needs the audience as witness—to charm them, to play dumb at times, to make sure they’re on her side. Ideally we’ll feel complicit in how this woman is arriving at the thoughts she gets to at the end of the play.” The play is about a real woman in a real living room in a difficult situation—but a little bit heightened. “She’s conjured these people [the audience] because she needs to talk,” he says.

For Pen, and certainly for Analisa Leaming as Sara Jane, the technical challenge is in the transitions from singing to speech, transitions that must be rapid and appear effortless. The music, says Pen, cannot be labeled by genre—it’s music that, for her, arises organically from the character. “It was a sort of extreme improvisation,” she says, of the composing process. “I had to feel that not only was this character making up the music on the spot, but as this character I was making up the music on the spot—as though the character herself is the composer in some ways, and she’s singing to cheer herself up.”

She adds, “We’re taking a microscopic look at one person, and one person is of course many things. … You’re hearing all of her thoughts. Some are silly and comic and nutty. And they switch rapidly, then get pulled into a very strict form.”

Both Pen and Lodato have a strange, symbiotic feeling for Sara Jane, says Pen. “My language here is musical, but I’m also very much feeding off the sounds of his words…. Because Victor is also a poet, I knew he’d have an understanding of how words sound in the voice. Because of that, not a lot of changes [to the script] were musically necessary.”

The play requires two pianos, one a baby grand, the other less refined; one entire scene is an intense but wordless conversation that Sara Jane and Jerry conduct by playing the pianos. “It is as if Sara Jane and Jerry are writing back and forth to each other, typing or texting,” say the stage directions. “A breathtaking exchange of emotion.”

When Lodato writes, his characters’ emotions surge through his body. At the end, though, he knows he has to exorcise them—the emotions must leave his body, enter the bodies of the performers. “During that process, it can be painful,” he confesses. With a character he loves as much as he loves Sara Jane, it is surely doubly so.

Nov. 13-Dec. 8, Magic Theatre, Bldg. D, Fort Mason. 441-8822.