At an upstage baby grand, the pianist (a wonderfully versatile Jeff Pew) plays. As the thunder and rain get louder (impressive sound design by Sara Huddleston), so too does the pounding of the keys, as if the fury of nature is transformed into music. The thunder becomes so deafening that, at its final clap, the theater seats actually shake.
It’s a startling beginning to the jewel-like, hourlong drama, and a portent of the internal turmoil that will soon overwhelm the play’s solitary character, Sara Jane (a luminous, sweet-voiced Analisa Leaming).
Sara Jane is a young and vulnerable military wife; her husband, Jerry, has been stationed in a war zone for the past three months.
With lean and lyrical text that is also gracefully vernacular, Sara Jane sings throughout, expressing every thought in musical form.
The music, by composer Polly Pen, which so beautifully dovetails Sara Jane’s feelings, is utterly captivating: alternately lilting, moody, playful, buoyantly melodious.
Appealing to us as though we were her confessors or confidantes, Sara Jane at first appears to be babbling happily, but within minutes is describing a nightmare: “I dreamed of, I don’t know what they were / Like arms and legs and ... / Red paint / Or whatever.”
Like the pianist (who also has a few lines as the absent Jerry, and as her military dad), Sara Jane too plays the piano, a smaller, downstage one.
At a few points she sings a song she invented in childhood (“When the moon comes up / She comes into our house ...”). Sometimes the two sing together (the gently comic “We’re boring / Like people in love”) and, in one gorgeous sequence, play a passionate, anguished duet.
When Jerry sends her some horrific cellphone photos, including one in which he’s smiling, she struggles to understand exactly what’s going on over there and what’s permissible in war.
“I just don’t like it / When people change,” she sings. “I mean, what’s Jerry going to be / When he gets home? / A goat? / A pig?”
The question is both funny and poignant. Sara Jane is even beginning to wonder who she herself is, or is becoming, and that’s the beauty of the play, so sensitively directed by Jackson Gay: We get to see Sara Jane — who could be any military wife, anywhere — mature and evolve over the course of one day.
Presented by Magic Theatre
Where: Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2:30 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Dec. 8
Tickets: $20 to $60
Contact: (415) 441-8822, www.magictheatre.org