Haunting, and atmospheric, Jacqueline Goldfinger’s compelling new play, The Arsonists, is premiering at Azuka Theatre. Under the subtle direction of Allison Heishman, the drama is set in Dirk Durossette’s impressionistic design, a wooden cabin where the windows look like masks of terrified tragedy.
It begins explosively, when a young woman (Sarah Gliko) enters, angry and smudged with ashes from a fire; she proceeds to chop a hole in the floor and throw into it the body of her father (Steven Rishard). This body will soon rise up, dust itself off, and together they will give us the rest of this short, lyrical drama. This is not your usual family piece — although the mother’s mysterious death lurks at its core — nor is it anything like a conventional ghost story. This is tragedy, in the classical sense: Greek, but with a redemptive ending.
If you measure by dialogue, this play is exceedingly short, since the few spoken lines are woven into songs and silences, and the whole is merely 70 minutes. We learn this father/daughter team are arsonists for hire, and that tonight their fire got out of control: “It happens sometimes.”
When I last saw Sophocles’s Electra, Zoe Wanamaker wore her father Agamemnon’s huge military greatcoat throughout as an outward sign of her extreme attachment to him, an attachment exacerbated by grief since his death. Thus Freud’s shorthand: “Electra complex.” This is the subtext of The Arsonists.
The play exists on two planes, the real and the psychological, and Goldfinger leaves it to us to figure out whether we’re watching some fascinating aftermath of a crime or the torment in a woman’s mind. But that’s the dramatic pleasure of subtext: You get both.
Why all this elaborate business with string, we wonder? We watch both characters measure lengths of plain white string and hang it in loops from a beam. And then the clue comes as the father intones — quite casually -- the play’s mythic underpinning, the Three Fates: Clotho, who spins the thread of life; Lachesis, who measures the thread of life; Atropos, who snips the thread of life.
Rishard has found that tragic physical space between the pitiable and the grotesque; he delivers his character’s wisdom perfectly off-handedly while his body refuses to live and cannot die. But, if all this takes place in his daughter’s shocked soul, Gliko is both loving and tough. We can see the family resemblance.
This is quite a week for Jacqueline Goldfinger: Adding to the excitement of a “rolling world premiere” — three more theaters around the U.S. will present this play — is her winning the prestigious Yale prize for Bottle Fly, with a reading at London’s National Theatre. It is also Azuka Theatre’s triumph: Their experiment with pay-what-you-will yielded the highest attendance and highest revenue from their last show. The Arsonists, their third production of a Goldfinger play, is further evidence of Azuka’s admirable commitment to Philadelphia playwrights.Azuka Theatre at the Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks St. Through May 21.