Jacqueline Goldfinger’s The Arsonists, now receiving a regional premiere at Benchmark Theatre, is only about eighty minutes long, but this is no lightweight evening — and there’s a kind of eternity written into the script.
As you enter, you find the theater sufficiently darkened that you worry for your footing as you search for a seat. Sounds define the space as the play opens — crickets and frogs, occasional birdsong, all undergirded by deep musical chords. You’re in a Florida swamp, and you find yourself facing a shadowy space shaped by wooden slats, through which light slides at various points. A figure hauling a heavy sack enters; you can’t really see her face, but you can hear gasps and sobs as she pries up some floorboards and deposits the sack in the space beneath. Then the light goes up a touch, though her face and figure remain shadowy, as does the shape of the man who rises from the planked grave.
These are the arsonists, a father-daughter team who make their living by the skilled setting of fires. The father is dead. What we’re seeing is his ghost, or perhaps just her memory of him. Fire is vicious and unpredictable: Despite the couple’s experience, the one they set most recently took the father’s life. In revenge — I believe; I had trouble catching every word — the daughter manipulated the flames and killed others.
Clearly, fire is a metaphor in this hallucinatory and intensely metaphorical play, for the flames’ horror and beauty, their destructiveness and cleansing power. This is not the only allusion to be contemplated, if not unraveled.
Throughout, father and daughter, identified only as H and M, twist strings and pull them through what I assume are cans of gasoline, since gasoline-soaked strings are a frequent tool of arsonists. These strings are then hung from a line as the father runs his fingers along them and speaks of the Greek furies who spun the thread of human fate, naming them several times: Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, who cut the thread of life. M and H are death dealers, but the father is also urging his daughter to abandon the fire-setting skills he taught her and reach for a new life. To do this, she must make him whole by reuniting him with a crucial, undefined piece of himself left in the fire.
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On one level, The Arsonists is a prolonged lamentation, an expression of grief and loss, an exploration of how death separates us and how we let go — or are unable to let go — of those we love most deeply. The stricken daughter tries every trick and ritual she knows to keep her father with her; it’s the father whose pain takes physical form — an ever-growing hole in his side that gnaws until on more than one occasion he howls and falls to the floor and, at one point in a rare moment of humor, marvels at the stoicism of those ubiquitous Victorian phantoms.
Goldfinger has said that Sophocles’s Electra was part of her inspiration for The Arsonists, but I didn’t see any plot parallels, and there’s no clear storyline. We don’t learn much about the fire that begins the action, and the father’s missing piece is never defined (a named body part might add some resonance and specificity). But you don’t need story to appreciate The Arsonists, just imagination, a willingness to submerge yourself in the play’s semi-mythic reality, an emotional response to the folk songs woven through the evening, and a sensitivity to language: Goldfinger’s is poetic, striking and often highly evocative. It’s much to the credit of Michael Morgan, who plays H, and Rebekah Goldberg as M (both excellent performances) that the language always sounds like real communication, and it also helps that director Stephen Weitz is clearly unafraid of pauses, allowing them to pulse with silence or the sounds of the swamp.
In this, its second production at what was until recently the Edge Theater, Benchmark has mounted a fine exploration of a fascinating text by a playwright worth following. Still, while watching the thick, muttering evening unfold, I found myself longing for just a little more light…in every sense. And wishing that someone would explain the reference to Truman Capote.
The Arsonists, presented by Benchmark Theatre through July 21, 1560 Teller Street, Lakewood, benchmarktheatre.com.