Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Unknown Soldier
Arena Stage
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Lora Lee Gayer, Kerstin Anderson,
and Adam Chanler-Berat

Photo by Teresa Castracane
Who really knows the truth of what happened in the past and how that has affected the present and the future? That is the mystery at the core of Unknown Soldier, the beautiful and heartfelt musical now in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage in Washington.

Bookwriter Daniel Goldstein and composer Michael Friedman, who also collaborated on the lyrics, tell a story of one family that covers almost a century but is universal in its impact. Probably every family has a few mysteries: relationships lost to time, uncomfortable secrets, and stories with missing (or consciously suppressed) pieces.

In 2003, Ellen Rabinowitz (resolute Lora Lee Gayer, played as an exuberant child by Riglee Ruth Bryson) is trying to flesh out a childhood memory: a World War I-era newspaper clipping showing her grandmother, Lucy Lemay Anderson (Kerstin Anderson as a radiant young woman, Judy Kuhn in later decades), picnicking with a man described as an "Unknown Soldier."

Ellen's mother died giving birth to her and her grandmother, who raised her, refuses to talk about the past. She teams up with researcher Andrew Hoffman (Adam Chanler-Berat), who has found the same photo in the files he's excavating, and the storytelling slides effortlessly among these disparate eras, considering the limitations of memory and the knowledge that no one ever can know the whole truth.

Director Trip Cullman maintains the pace through an uninterrupted runtime of about 100 minutes. Mark Wendland's scenic design begins in the dust-gray archive where Andrew is doing research at Cornell University but broadens to depict the once-great but now economically depressed town of Troy, New York, brought to life through a series of illuminated models of early 20th-century buildings. Ben Stanton's lighting design finds its touchstone in the astronomical mural that covers the vaulted ceiling of New York City's Grand Central Terminal: a vision of the vastness of the sky and, by implication, everything that happens under it.

Ellen knows only that her grandmother met her grandfather in Grand Central during her whirlwind visit to the city, they immediately married before he went overseas, and that he died in action never knowing he had a daughter. The man in the newspaper photo (Perry Sherman) had returned from the war with amnesia and probable shell shock–but who was he and what was his connection with Ellen's grandmother?

Goldstein and Friedman have created a rapturous score that ranges from humorous to heartbreaking, with an occasional moment of vaudeville ("The Memory Song," performed by Nehal Joshi as a doctor and a chorus of medical students) and gripping solos for Gayer and Chanler-Berat. Six talented musicians provide powerful support.

Unknown Soldier runs through May 5, 2024, at Arena Stage, Kreeger Theater, Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th St. SW, Washington DC. For tickets and information, please call 202-488-3300 or visit

Book by Daniel Goldstein
Music by Michael Friedman
Lyrics by Michael Friedman and Daniel Goldstein
Directed by Trip Cullman
Choreographed by Patrick McCollum
Music director: Chris Kong

Young Ellen/Lucy Rabinowitz: Riglee Ruth Bryson
Andrew Hoffman: Adam Chanler-Berat
Lucy Anderson: Judy Kuhn
Lucy Lemay: Kerstin Anderson
Ellen Rabinowitz: Lora Lee Gayer
Doctor: Nehal Joshi
Francis Grand: Perry Sherman
Ensemble: Sumié Yotsukura
Ensemble/ u/s Doctor: Ronald Joe Williams
Ensemble/ u/s Andrew: Taylor Witt
Ensemble/ u/s Lucy Lemay, Ellen Rabinowitz: Candice Shedd-Thompson
Swing/ u/s Lucy Anderson: Amy Griffin
Swing: Jordyn Taylor
Swing/ u/s Francis/Dance Captain: Wood Van Meter
u/s Young Ellen/Lucy Rabinowitz: Elizabeth Vargo