Unknown Soldier, Kreeger Theatre, Arena Stage, Washington, DC

 

Lora Lee Gayer and Adam Chanler-Berat in Unknown Soldier. Photo credit: Teresa Castracane.

I first saw Judy Kuhn on the Broadway stage in August 1986, when she co-starred in the far-too-abbreviated run of the Stephen Schwartz musical Rags. Later that season, she originated the role of Cosette in Les Mis√©rables, which had a decidedly longer run and brought her the first of her four Tony nominations. Now, more than 37 years later, she is playing a grandmother, Lucy Anderson, nee Lemay, in the current offering at Arena Stage, a new musical titled Unknown Soldier. Her voice retains the same beautifully crystalline quality I remember so clearly from those two long-ago performances.

Unknown Soldier, with book by Daniel Goldstein, music by Michael Friedman, and lyrics by both, tells the story of Ellen Rabinowitz, a 40-something physician preparing to sell her grandmother’s home where she grew up in Troy, New York. As she goes through endless old papers and photographs, she comes across a magazine article about an unknown soldier, picturing a young man and a beautiful young woman that she believes to be her grandmother enjoying a picnic. Ellen becomes obsessed with learning the background of the photo. She makes contact with a bored young archivist, Andrew, doing archival work in the library at Cornell University. He takes an interest in her quest for information, and then in her. Their relationship evolves through a series of emails, then direct messages, and then to an ill-fated in-person meeting, despite the 170.2 miles that separate them.


Lora Lee Gayer, Kerstin Anderson, and Adam Chanler-Berat in Unknown Soldier. Photo credit: Teresa Castracane.

Alternating between the periods of 1918-20, 1973, and 2003, the play begins with young Ellen in 1973, reciting her report on World War I in a song titled “The Great War,” in which she informs (or reminds) the audience that World War I was called the Great War and the War to End All Wars, and started because an archduke was shot, resulting in a complete re-mapping of Europe. Young Ellen has found the yellowed photo and asks her grandmother about it, only to be admonished for snooping around. Back to 2023, Ellen laments her return to Troy, which she sings about as “The Worst Town in New York” when she first connects by email with Andrew, who in turn describes Ithaca, Cornell’s location, as the best town in the state.

We see the beautiful young Lucy Lemay on her first visit to New York City, amazed by all of the handsome young men in uniform preparing to go overseas. She and a young soldier meet, spend the day together, and are married. We see the psychological effects of the war not just on the soldiers, but also on those to whom they do not return. Because her husband does not return, newlywed Lucy does not have the life she envisioned, with a husband who “takes care of things.” She will bear a daughter, who years later dies in childbirth, leaving Lucy to raise her inquisitive granddaughter, Ellen, who has just regaled us with her report on World War I.    


Perry Sherman and Kerstin Anderson in Unknown Soldier. Photo credit: Kian McKellar.

Typically, we think of an "unknown soldier” as one whose name and identity we do not know. What sets this story apart is that the soldier is unknown to himself as well as to others. We meet the titular character, a World War I veteran who has no knowledge of who he is or where he came from. He has been dubbed “Francis Grand,” because he responded to the name Francis and was found at Grand Central Station. When young Lucy reads about the unknown soldier, she convinces herself that he is her husband. She visits him daily for months, trying to get him to say her name. She is certain that Francis is her presumed-dead husband, but Francis’s doctor is not. We get a brief break from the drama with a vaudeville-style number, “The Memory Song,” sung by the doctor and chorus, which simplifies the complicated nature of various types of memory lapse.


Adam Chanler-Berat, Taylor Witt, Candice Shedd-Thompson, Nehal Joshi, Sumié Yotsukura, and Ronald Joe Williams in Unknown Soldier. Photo credit: Teresa Castracane.

There are many threads of the story here, unified by the specter of the unknown soldier, presenting us with the question of just what and how much we know about the people close to us, or even ourselves. Ellen thinks she knew her grandmother, but as the story unfolds, she learns that there was so much more to her than she realized. Ellen could not wait to escape Troy, but now that she is back there, her perspective changes. Maybe she is where she needs to be. She and Andrew have a much-later chance meeting in New York. Neither of them is where they thought they would be, but they are where they belong.

The story is touching and sentimental. The songs are generally romantic and sound as if they came from some previous period. The more memorable ones are those that deviate from the romantic: the previously-mentioned “Memory Song” and a humorous number, “Milkshake,” that provides some cover for an anticipated relationship between Ellen and Andrew. Ellen expresses the contradictions in her life in a song titled, “I Give Away Children.” As an OB/Gyn, she delivers them and hands them over, usually never to see them again.

The talented cast is led by Lora Lee Gayer as Ellen Rabinowitz. Gayer gives an unaffected performance, nuanced and natural, conveying an air of comfortability. Andrew Chanler-Berat’s Andrew is frustrated and easily distracted, giving into his impulses but every bit as driven as Ellen toward finding the answers about the photograph. Riglee Ruth Bryson is recognizably impish and curious as Young Ellen before appearing briefly as Ellen’s daughter Lucy.

Kerstin Anderson as the young Lucy Lemay is resolute. She is in rhapsody as she fantasizes about having a husband (“A Husband Who Takes Care of Things”), but breaks down emotionally when she confronts reality, and later when she persists in trying to convince Francis that he is her husband. Perry Sherman as Francis meets the unusual acting challenge of playing someone who is an emotionally blank canvas. Nehal Joshi is all business as the uptight doctor, but he lets loose in “The Memory Song.”

And then there is Judy Kuhn as the grandmother. She is by turns delicate and steely, and when she dances with the illusion of her late husband, she positively glows. Her performance absolutely sparkles.

Judy Kuhn in Unknown Soldier. Photo credit: Teresa Castracane.

One challenge of the play is that different actors play characters for different periods of their lives. Riglee Ruth Bryson is the young Ellen, with Lora Lee Gayer taking over as an adult; Kerstin Anderson plays the younger Lucy (referred to as Lucy Lemay) through her teens and into her twenties, followed by Judy Kuhn as the elderly Lucy Anderson. Each pair of actors blends seamlessly, much to their credit and that of director Trip Cullman.

The basic set, designed by Mark Wendland, represents a space in which archives are examined and held. It is monochromatically gray, with fluorescent-style lights hanging from the ceiling over several tables and piles of banker’s boxes storing papers and artifacts. By changing some set pieces and using Lucy MacKinnon’s perfectly suggestive projections and lighting by Ben Stanton, we are transported back and forth in time in this visually neutral background. Similarly, Jacob A. Climer’s costume designs primarily use muted colors that do not draw undue attention, fittingly representing the characters and time periods.

I do not know what is in the future for Unknown Soldier, but its message is important and timely, and it deserves to be seen. Its sensitivity is genuine and you will be touched. Take some tissues when you see it for yourself in the Kreeger Theatre at Arena Stage, continuing through May 5. 


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