Regional Reviews: Chicago
Also see Karen's reviews of A Christmas Carol, The Wiz, Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella and Christmas with Elvis, Christine's review of A Christmas Carol, and Richard's review of Stupid Fucking Bird.
The story is set on Kinnan Island, a community whose slow death is poised to be hastened along by an offer from the government to relocate the dwindling number of remaining residents to the "Big Land." Eilidh, the island's only remaining child, lives with her grandmother and grudgingly maintains a FaceTime relationship with her mother, who departed the island after its lone school closed to seek work on the mainland.
In her wanderings on the beach, Eilidh comes across a beached whale calf whom she sings to as it is dying. Later on the same beach, she comes across a strange and traumatized girl, Arran, who turns out to be one of the legendary Finfolk. Viewing herself as responsible for the death of the whale, who had been her charge, Arran turns out to have fled her people out of guilt and shame. The girls work their way through their mutual loss, grief, and relationship to a shared myth, and buoyed by unexpected new life in their communities, both ultimately make a start on repairing the significant relationships in their lives.
The costume design by Hahnji Jang is simple and functional. The actors' shifts from one role to another is accomplished through performance, yet it's important that the costuming not contradict or complicate any of these transformations. Eilidh wears a cabled sweater jacket, much mended, that is as believable on a girl as it is on the heavily pregnant Breagha. Arran's navy jumpsuit unzips to reveal a rather girlish striped sweater beneath when she and Eilidh meet, but otherwise it serves as a neutral background for characters as varied as Eilidh's Gran and a marine biologist who has recently come to the island.
The scenic design by Emma Bailey is similarly quite minimal, just a single set piece resembling a wide-rimmed bowl tipped so that it is high upstage and the "rim" appears buried in the sand downstage. The differences in height, paired with the performer's skillful physicality, suggests rocky terrain descending to the sea. The white material is readily transformed by way of Simon Wilkinson's lighting design to suggest the sea, Eilidh's home, a tiny radio station, and so on. Wilkinson's lighting is also starkly impressive during the storm that marks the play's climax.
The sound design by Sam Kusnetz (Finn Anderson is credited with the loop station's sound design) is the obvious third star of the show. From the time the audience enters the space, there is a low, constant tone that only becomes obvious when it is suddenly withdrawn. It's a powerful means of shifting attention all at once to the harmony, percussion, and sounds the performers begin to create from the show's opening number. There are one or two instances where the relative volume of elements obscures dialogue or otherwise nudges the narrative to the background in a way that is frustrating, but on the whole, the sound in tight sync with the lighting and the performers' movements transports the audience to an altered state.
Although the run-time is only about ninety minutes, the demands the show places on the actors are considerable. It makes sense, then, that it has two casts who alternate nights. At this performance, Lois Craig played Eilidh and Julia Murray played Arran (Sylvie Stenson and Stephanie MacGaraidh, respectively, play the roles on alternate nights). Both have positively exquisite voices and unfailing technical skill. The show often calls on each to enter into a number a cappella or to rapidly establish a rhythmic element immediately following a dramatic scene. There is no room for error and unwavering mutual faith is critical. Craig and Murray deliver on both fronts, and the deep, necessary bond between them adds an electric charge to what is already a highly emotional affair.
Moreover, their acting is also stellar and just as mutually supportive. Whereas Craig is able to establish Eilidh, as she plays her alone through much of the early parts of the play, Murray's multiple roles as Eilidh's mother, her Gran, and Jenny, the marine biologist with whom Eilidh longs to form a connection, help the audience to learn about Eilidh and her circumstances. Once Arran emerges, the dynamic is reversed. Craig shifts between characters as Arran is gradually revealed. The end result is not just a pleasure to watch in terms of appreciating their craft as actors, the two genuinely create a fully realized community to support the narrative.
Islander runs through December 17, 2023, Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 East Grand Avenue, Chicago IL. For tickets, visit www.chicagoshakes.com or call 312-595-5600.