Two young women sit facing each other in a white shallow bowl-like structure.
Julia Murray (left) and Lois Craig in Islander at Chicago Shakespeare Theater Credit: Steve Tanner

If Laurie Anderson had done a mash-up of Scott O’Dell’s young adult classic Island of the Blue Dolphins and the 1994 John Sayles Celtic magic realist film, The Secret of Roan Inish, the result might be very similar to Islander. This minimalist but enchanting musical, which started life in 2017 on the Isle of Mull and had a highly celebrated run in the 2019 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, is now onstage with Chicago Shakespeare, courtesy of their WorldStage series. It’s a cunning offering, providing a warm-hearted tale for a cold season.

Through 12/17: Wed-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 2:30 and 7:30 PM, Sun 2 and 6 PM; ASL interpretation Fri 12/8, audio description Sun 12/10 2 PM; Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand, 312-595-5600,, $65-$75

True, Eilidh, the young girl at the center of the piece (conceived and originally directed by Amy Draper, with music and lyrics by Finn Anderson and a book by Stewart Melton) isn’t completely alone, as was the heroine of O’Dell’s story. But as the only child on the (fictional) Scottish island of Kinnan, she’s a lonely lass. Her mother took off for the mainland to work as a teacher, leaving Eilidh in the care of her grandmother, whose idea of a joke is playing dead every time her granddaughter walks in the door. The few remaining residents of the embattled island—including very pregnant Breagha, Paul (who takes up the town council meetings with complaints about a stolen garden gnome), and marine biologist Jenny—have to vote on whether they will “remain” or “leave” for the mainland themselves. (Would this be “Kixit?”)

When Eilidh comes across a dying whale calf on the beach, it sets off a series of events tying together the island’s future with its mystical past. As we hear at the beginning, Kinnan allegedly split in half centuries earlier, with seafaring folk leaving on a different floating island to be shepherds of whales and the islanders remaining to eke out an agricultural existence. With the arrival of Arran, another teenage girl who claims to be one of the residents of the floating island, will there be a healing of ancient rifts, as well as current heartaches?

Performed by just two actors, who play all the roles and create all the music and sound effects through looping, this 90-minute show casts its own net upon the storytelling seas and provides rich rewards, without the Celtic acoustic music one might expect for such a tale. (Rest assured: this isn’t Brigadoon.) It may take a few minutes to adjust to the spareness of this approach and the sometimes-distancing (to me, at any rate) effect of the echoing loops of voices and sounds. 

But as the actors embodying these characters begin to move around the small set, rich textures emerge, and all the people of Kinnan take shape. Emma Bailey’s curved white-walled playing area suggests the interior of a traditional Irish currach, or perhaps the bleached skeleton of a small whale, with vertical ribs visible along its surface. (It’s sometimes lit up from within by Simon Wilkinson’s bright washes of primary colors.) Eilidh and Arran (played by Lois Craig and Julia Murray, respectively, at the performance I saw; they alternate in the roles with Sylvie Stenson and Stephanie MacGaraidh) carry guilt and responsibilities on their shoulders far beyond their years. Their growing bond suggests not only salvation for themselves but for a divided world that’s forgotten its communal roots. What could be more appropriate at the holidays?