The first time that Lily, the lead character in Sophie Treadwell's Intimations for Saxophone, talks about a saxophone, she insists that she loathes the instrument, claiming it sounds "hungry - and lonely - and so empty."
The next time Lily mentions the saxophone, however, this budding independent woman finds its yearning strains restful.
On the most basic level, these responses describe the journey Lily takes, from loneliness to inner peace, in this 1930s drama, rediscovered and adapted by Michael Kinghorn and receiving a much-belated world premiere at Washington's Arena Stage.
Not a household name, Tread- well was a journalist, early feminist and expressionist playwright. Arena has done well to pair her with acclaimed avant-garde director Anne Bogart, whose highly visual, stylized approach makes Treadwell's relatively simple tale of longing and self-discovery feel as evocative as a jazz tone poem.
Set in the Jazz Age, the play is essentially a character study. A young woman (Lily) marries a wealthy, devoted man (Gilly), but fails to find fulfillment in the marriage. Inspired by a European novelist whose books focus on women and love, Lily travels alone to Europe and eventually becomes her own person.
Hardly shocking and far from radically feminist today - in the final scene, Karron Graves' still-evolving Lily expresses her independence by accepting an invitation from a man - Intimations might have seemed daring in the 1930s. But nowadays few eyebrows would be raised by this coming-of-age story about a woman forging her own identity separate from her husband, who is baffled and heartbroken by her departure.
For director Bogart and Barney O'Hanlon - who not only delivers a touching portrayal of Lily's clueless, immature husband but also choreographed the production - the script is basically a framework on which to display a portrait of an era and a way of life in flux.
Designer Neil Patel's set consists primarily of a raised central platform, flanked on two sides by cafe tables at which most of the actors sit when not directly involved in a scene. By the end, O'Hanlon's Gilly has been permanently relegated to a corner table, from which he observes and patiently waits for the wife we know will never return to him. Lily, meanwhile, has joined the mainstream of life as an individual, no longer defined merely as a wife.
When Graves' Lily bravely sets off on an ocean liner for Europe, the ship is portrayed by a clump of actors moving briskly across the stage and representing both passengers and crew.
Bogart's staging invests even the simplest activities with meaning. In a scene in which O'Hanlon's Gilly dresses for dinner, another actor serves as the sink, holding the basin Gilly uses to shave; the same actor then becomes Gilly's closet, handing him his jacket. Unlike Lily, who longs to be on her own, Gilly can't even dress himself without a support system.
Except for Graves and O'Hanlon, the other eight actors all play multiple roles, with Christopher McCann cutting an especially memorable figure as the novelist - part father figure, part psychoanalyst - whose books change Lily's life.
The production is richly augmented by Darron L. West's sound design, which varies from crowd noises to plaintive saxophone solos, and James Schuette's elegant period costumes.
Both designers and more than half the cast are veterans of director Bogart's innovative SITI Company, and that shared history surely contributes to the seamlessness of the final effort.
Intimations for Saxophone is a project that Kinghorn, a former Arena Stage dramaturg, worked on for 14 years, unearthing nine of Treadwell's drafts before adapting a finished script. What he recovered and refurbished may not be a masterpiece, but under Bogart's guidance, its gentle jazz melody weaves a fetching spell.
Intimations for Saxophone
Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., S.W., Washington
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays; noon selected Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Through Feb. 27