In musical fable ‘Islander’ at Olney, humans seek harmony with nature

The two-person show from Scotland has a unique soundtrack of haunting melodies and syncopated interludes mixed with the cries and calls of the sea.

If a human sings to a whale, does the whale hear it? The mystical relationship between nature’s largest mammal and its most enigmatic one is central to Islander, an engaging, two-person musical fable imported from Scotland and running at Olney Theatre Center through April 28. While the human preoccupation with the biggest fish in the sea is an age-old one — think Jonah and his whale or Captain Ahab and Moby Dick — Islander presents it in a fresh, music- and vocals-inspired myth about relationships, care for nature, and time-honored tradition.

Islander is not your ordinary musical, though; everything from the songs to the sounds of various instruments (bagpipe, fiddle, and harp) and of nature (sea, wind, rain) is produced by the show’s two actresses (Lois Craig and Stephanie MacGaraidh, in rotation with Sylvie

Sylvie Stenson and Stephanie MacGaraidh in ‘Islander.’ Photo by Nate Watters.

Stenson and Julia Murray). Their remarkable voices, without instrumentation, carry the entire acoustic landscape of Islander, which was conceived by Amy Draper, with music and lyrics by Finn Anderson. (The simple, evocative set design, recalling shoreline, tidal pool, and perhaps a whale’s blowhole, is by Emma Bailey.) In a process called live looping, Islander’s actresses record themselves creating various sound effects in front of the audience, then play those back throughout the show, producing a multi-layered soundscape over which they sing. The result is a unique soundtrack of haunting melodies and syncopated interludes mixed with the cries and calls of the sea.

Julia Murray and Lois Craig and ‘Islander.’ Photo by Sayed Alamy.

One of those calls comes from Eilidh (a vibrant Lois Craig), the only remaining teenager on the fictional, sparsely populated Scottish island of Kinnan. Eilidh has discovered a dying whale calf washed up on the shore and attempts to communicate with it through song (“There Is a Whale”). However, Eilidh is faced with the age-old question of whether humans and other animals really can understand one another. “What do they have to say to us?” Jenny (Stephanie MacGaraidh), a cetologist from the mainland, queries. “Stop doing what you’re doing,” Eilidh tartly responds. The future is at stake for both people and nature in the world Eilidh inhabits: the islanders of Kinnan are about to vote on their removal to “the big land” (the Scottish mainland); the death of the whale calf suggests that life in the waters beyond Kinnan is endangered, too. Embodying a range of local characters including Jenny, Eilidh’s mother (who in Eilidh’s eyes has deserted her for the mainland), Eilidh’s grandmother, and a pregnant islander, Craig and MacGaraidh endow the tale with song, humor, poignancy, and a degree of mystery.

The latter comes courtesy of MacGaraidh, who plays a girl called Arran — the name of an actual Scottish island — who, coincidentally, washes ashore shortly after the whale calf dies. Whereas Eilidh is exuberant, Arran is quiet and introspective, unsure of where she is or what to do. As it turns out, she’s from a heretofore undiscovered floating island called “Setasea,” whose inhabitants (the “fisherfolk”) are guardians of the whales. In that job, Arran appears to have failed. She fails, too, at least initially, in persuading Eilidh that her story is true.

Amid the various falling-outs — between Arran and Eilidh, between Eilidh and her mainland-residing mother, between islanders who disagree about leaving Kinnan — song calms the roiling waters. Arran, too, has the gift of communicating with the “other” through music — in this case, the in-utero child of the pregnant Breagha (played by Craig). One life ends (that of the whale calf, Arna) and one begins (that of Breagha’s unnamed baby), but not before a great storm brings things to a climax in which humankind and nature are reconciled, at least for the present, and Eilidh finds her early question — Can a whale hear my song? — answered in a surprising, marvelous way. Humans may have failed the whales, at least in Arran’s telling, but Islander suggests that the whales have not failed the humans.

Yet a telling contingency hangs over the play’s closing lines. Now reconciled, Eilidh and Arran, inhabitants of different, equally fragile worlds, vow to see one another again. “If the whales are still swimming,” Arran the whale herder cautions. “If we’re still here,” Eilidh the islander adds. The audience — we mainlanders — are left to consider what is lost when the world no longer has any guardians. It’s a fitting reflection for Earth Day.

Running Time: 85 minutes, no intermission

Islander plays through April 28, 2024, at Olney Theatre Center, Roberts Mainstage, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD. Tickets ($50–$90) are available online or through the box office at 301-924-3400, open from 12 pm – 6 pm Wednesdays through Saturdays. Discounts are available for groups, seniors, military, and students (for details click here).

COVID Safety: Face masks are recommended but no longer required to attend events in any Olney Theatre Center performance spaces.

Conceived and Directed by Amy Draper
Staging & Associate Direction by Eve Nicol
Book by Stewart Melton
Music and Lyrics by Finn Anderson


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