The Arsonists – Review by Geary Danihy

On the Thrown Stone website, playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger suggests that her play, “The Arsonists,” was inspired by the Greek tragedy “Electra.” Well, perhaps so (who’s to say nay to the playwright, though there is the “intentional fallacy” but, whatever.) The connections seem slight (and unimportant). However, as this father-daughter exercise in memory, love and loss unfolds, one can’t but be reminded of some Flannery O’Connor short stories, for the play has a certain Southern Gothic atmosphere to it, and the characters, in true O’Connor fashion, are just a bit off-center.

In its second season, Thrown Stone, which is nested in the Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance on Main Street in Ridgefield, is offering two plays in repertory – “The Arsonists,” (a New England premiere) which opened on July 14, and “Where All Good Rabbits Go,” (an East Coast premiere), which opens July 21, with both running in tandem through August 4.

It’s difficult to put your finger on exactly what “The Arsonists,” directed by Jonathan Winn, is really about, but there’s no denying that this two-hander is blessed with two actors who easily command the stage: Nick Plakias as the father, “H,” and Emma Factor as the daughter, “M.” Together, they make the 70-minute run (with no intermission) seem to fly by.

What follows is a lot of “it would seem,” “perhaps,” and “apparently,” because from the play’s opening moments you’re never really sure if you’re watching actual events or have entered the mind of a young woman reflecting on and attempting to deal with her past. In any event, if we stay with the O’Connor motif, we have a young woman who drags home the body of her dead father in a sack while police sirens wail. The man was killed while the two, apparently, set a fire to allow someone to collect on insurance (hence the play’s title). The daughter breaks a hole in their cabin’s floor and drops in the sack, then proceeds to pick up a guitar and sing a lament. Ah, but this is Southern Gothic (the play is set in the Florida swamps), so the father rises from the dead, albeit with several parts missing. He tells his daughter he can’t truly rest until she collects the various body parts left behind in the fire, but if she does this he will leave her forever, pass on.

The Greek tragedy element is strongest with the references to the Fates, three goddesses who, in mythology, wove together a tapestry that dictated the lives and deaths of human beings. Thus, the daughter weaves while the father plays the guitar, however these strings seem, apparently (there’s that word again) to be destined as fuses for future fires, or maybe they’re just a physical metaphor.

What about the connection with “Electra”? Well, there is a deceased mother. When the daughter was eight years old she snuck into the funeral parlor, crept into her mother’s coffin and, after realizing her mother’s face was covered in bandages, fell asleep while embracing her mother’s corpse (O’Connor would have loved it). How did the mother, who was apparently (ah, once again) a bit deranged, die? Not sure. Why is her face disfigured? Again, not sure.

So, this may open up the possibility that “The Arsonists” is actually a ghost story, with the phantoms haunting the mind of the daughter and the drama, such as it is, rests in the daughter’s efforts to lay these spirits to rest. Perhaps. Much is left to the audience’s interpretation, but there’s no denying that Goldfinger’s writing is often eloquent, even poetic, and it is the primary draw of the play. Father and daughter are both given several soliloquies that are entrancing, especially M’s visit to her mother’s grave. You may not totally understand the motivation behind what is being said but there’s no denying that it is often moving. Shifting literary references, it’s much like reading (aloud) Emily Dickinson’s poetry – it sounds beautiful but, unless you’re a Dickinson scholar, are you ever quite sure what much of it means?

“The Arsonists” will not be to everyone’s taste, especially those who crave straightforward, linear development in their dramas or are uncomfortable asking themselves, “What the hell is going on here?” The staging, complete with scenic design by Fufan Zhang, is realistic, but what transpires has a bit of a dreamscape about it. All is open to interpretation.

For tickets or more information go to www.thrownstone.org.

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