By Jordan Wright (Photo/Teresa Wood)
Matt Conner’s time-bending drama “Crossing” opens with eight people — each with stories of hope, disillusionment and missed opportunities — waiting at a weathered train station.
Left unnamed, these weary travelers are loosely defined as Backpacker, 2013; Wealthy Man, 1929; Mother, 1917; Soldier, 1917; Woman with Flowers, 1977; Unknown Woman; Civil Rights Marcher, 1963; Woman in Pink, 1954; and Child, 1954. If you’re counting, that’s nine, of course.
The Unknown Woman, who appears in the story a bit later, seems to be an avatar for hope and change. But until she shows up, each of the weary travelers hopes that the train’s arrival will somehow change their lives. “The easiest journey starts with a small step,” we are reminded.
The opening number, “Here I Am,” is a sort of anthem to self-actualization. It aims to inspire the traveler, “to seek, to strive, to find, to seek a newer world.” High hopes, indeed.
An undercurrent of American patriotism is interwoven throughout the lyrics, which also reference the immediacy of each individual’s situation. Should the Civil Rights Marcher go to Selma, Ala.? Should the Wealthy Man break free? “Without my money, who am I?” he queries.
Should the Woman with Flowers take back her daughter, who’s run off with Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple? Will the Woman in Pink ever get on a train to anywhere?
Each has a step to take — a life lesson — to resolve before their train pulls into the station.
In the number, “Someone, Something, Somewhere,” the ensemble seems to agree: “I’m not looking behind. I’m taking what’s mine.”
There is a lot of wishing and hoping and planning and scheming in this set piece. “If you’re tired or hungry or scared, keep going,” the Unknown Woman urges the Civil Rights Marcher, who struggles to believe that she can make a difference.
Unfortunately, many lyrics are repetitive, patriotism is a handy conceit and dreams are ultimately unfulfilled. “Life is just a distraction from death,” the Wealthy Man decrees.
The only hopeful traveler is the Backpacker (Christopher Mueller). Unhampered by existential questions, he’s eager to explore the world and seize love where he finds it.
A reappearing butterfly — suggested by a spot of orange light on the stage floor — serves as a metaphor for freedom and change. But no one appears to be changing or getting liberated.
Hoped-for love connections are dashed, and sage advice is ignored. “If only I were braver — younger,” the ensemble sings. Ultimately, the only happy camper is the Backpacker.
The cast is the bravest element in a show that needs cheering up. Thankfully, Mueller evokes enough passion and energy to keep the play’s grim atmosphere in check. Tracy Lynn Olivera, playing the Woman in Pink, affords us a tender portrayal of a woman who cannot bring herself to commit to a happy future.
But Nova Y. Payton steals the show as the Unknown Woman, a beacon of light for all the world’s weary travelers. She dazzles the audience in the reverential solo number “After the Rain,” in which she urges the strangers to find their life’s path. Coupled with her a cappella gospel song “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” it makes you wish you had sat in her train car the entire trip.
“Crossing” runs through November 24 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. For tickets and information, call 703-820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.