Capital Stage's production of “The Arsonists" is a perplexing look at the relationship between two damaged souls.
Set in the Florida swamp in the 1990s, the tragic tale of a fugitive father-and-daughter team who sing together, tell stories together and start horrific fires together, is peppered with enough otherworldly elements to earn it a Southern Gothic stamp of approval.
But while playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger’s script comes across as both challenging and engrossing, it also feels more abbreviated than allegorical. Its length — the one-act play runs one hour with no intermission — doesn't allow the time or space needed to deliver satisfying answers to many of the questions, both practical and philosophical, that the play proposes.
We understand, for example, that arson is the family business, passed on from one generation to the next. “I had lived all my life in the heat," the father reflects at one point. But how did this begin? And why? And to what end? It all remains an open question, and that impression —that the script runs out before the story is complete — leaves audiences desiring more.
Goldfinger has said "The Arsonists" is inspired by the Greek tragedy "Electra," but that guidance only goes so far in filling in the gaps of a play that dares to take on the grandest of themes — life, death and the legacy our actions and love bestow upon our children.
Megan Wicks, making her Capital Stage debut as “M,” and Rich Hebert, playing “H,” deliver moving performances as the daughter who desperately wants to impress her father and follow in the family business, and the father who wants his daughter to escape and have a better life.
“Leave," he urges M. “Start something new. You can control that. You got a tiger by the tail, Doodlebug. You think you own it now but that’s a trick. It already owns you. You don’t get out. It takes what it wants in the end.”
"The Arsonists" opens with M dragging a heavy bag into a cabin and hiding it under the floor. We soon learn that the bag contains her father, who was severely burned when the two were setting a fire. The wind had kicked up suddenly and unexpectedly, causing him to immolate.
But H is not alive; nor is he dead. He is in a state of limbo, somewhere between the two worlds. “This middle, it’s torture, not being one way or the other," he says. "I feel my insides churning out.” He directs his daughter to return to the scene of the crime to pick up his charred bones: “You got to collect me all, put me in the ground all together," he says. "Otherwise, I can’t ascend.”
The complicated relationship between parent and child is the braided fuse that runs through this play, which reveals insights about grief, loss and betrayal through sparse dialogue, oration and song. M, now in her 20s, delivers an especially memorable soliloquy about how, as an 8-year-old, she crawled into her estranged mother’s coffin the night before her funeral: “I’m sorry Momma, I’m trying but I can’t reach you," she says. "I never could.”
M is much closer to her father, and their love for each other shines through when the two pick up their guitars and sing hymns and folk songs. Wicks and Hebert have strong voices, and their harmonies are sweet and soulful.
Nearly all of the action in “The Arsonists” takes place in or just outside the family's hideout — a cabin stripped bare of nearly any creature comforts. Clothing is piled in cardboard boxes, the “plumbing” consists of a water pitcher and wash basin and the bedding is blankets laid out on the wooden plank floor. There are also the tools of the trade, including a box of rope fuses and a can of gasoline.
“The Arsonists” technical team of Brian Harrower (scenic/lighting design), Ed Lee (sound) and Erika Metscher (properties) have done a masterful job of turning Capital Stage’s space into a stark, spooky cabin tucked away in the desolate swamp. Those noisy, pesky cicadas might not be crawling over and under the theater’s seats, but it sure felt and sounded that way.
Ultimately, the atmosphere is what audiences will remember most from this haunting play, which sparks provocative ideas but extinguishes them too quickly.
What: The rolling world premiere of playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger’s Southern Gothic tragedy about a father and daughter who make music, stories — and set fires — together. Directed by Gail Dartez.
Where: Capital Stage Company, 2215 J St., Sacramento
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays. Through April 15.
Cost: $28-$40, discounts available for students, seniors and military.
Information: 916-995-5464 or capstage.org
Running time: About one hour, with no intermission