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“Penelope” – A Modern-day Myth Breathes Fresh Air at Signature Theatre

ALEXANDRIA, VA – A solitary woman stands on Ithaca’s shoreline awaiting the dawn. Casting her eyes out over the Ionian Sea, she looks for his ship – a sign her husband, legendary commander and war hero, is returning from a battle long over. Another day, another year, a decade hoping for Odysseus’ return. Penelope (Jessica Phillips) speaks of the soldiers – noisy, uncouth men who have set up tents in her courtyard. She’s given up trying to oust them.

Jessica Phillips in Penelope. Photo by Daniel Rader.jpg

Penelope is lyricist and composer Alex Bechtel’s own odyssey to bring this much celebrated character to life. Directed by Eva Steinmetz who also contributed to the book with Bechtel and Grace McLean, its evolution into a modernized love story of a faithful and patient wife are easily identifiable. Here we find Penelope as a real-life wife displaying emotions ranging from frustration to anger and longing to sentimentality. Prominent is her famed fidelity to a man we never meet.

Paige Hathaway’s simple set design focuses on our heroine in front of a background of curvilinear dunes changing colors from dawn to sunset. Onstage are a quintet of musicians – on piano Ben Moss, on percussion Erika Johnson, on violin Jennifer Rickard, on viola Imelda Tecson Juarez and on cello Susanna Mendlow. It’s an impressive group and the glue that holds the piece together. The songs and the instrumentals reflect Penelope’s ever-changing mood swings that range from frantic to riotously funny (Bourbon is her medicine of choice) to contemplative and, in her most desperate moments, a cry for guidance from Athena the Greek goddess of wisdom and war.

Jessica Phillips in Penelope. Photo by Daniel Rader.jpg

Told in modern vernacular, the patient Penelope becomes a relatable “every” woman.  As in the myth, her time at the loom and the undoing of her work each night so as not to complete a piece, become a metaphor for unrequited love. The beautiful ballad “Weaving” is about longing and a love unfinished.

This 75-minute production has 21 numbers – one calypso number, ballads, and a bit of rock – 14 of those sung by Phillips. But it’s the ballads that stick with you, that and Phillips’ ability to bring life and believability to the character. With a rich background in musical theater, both on and off Broadway and on national tour in Dear Evan Hansen, Phillips knows her craft well, offering up a riveting range of emotions. Based on the writings of Homer’s The Odyssey, this production has recently been extended, reflecting both its success and appeal.

Jessica Phillips in Penelope. Photo by Daniel Rader.jpg

With Costume Design by Danielle Preston and Lighting Design by Jesse Belsky.

Through April 28 in the ARK Theatre at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue in Shirlington Village, Arlington, VA 22208. For tickets and information call the box office at 703 820-9771 or visit

Jordan Wright

Jordan Wright is a noted publisher and writer focused on food, spirits, travel, theatre and lifestyles.  Her writing can also be found on her personal website

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