In a culture loaded with irony and snark, the chance to come face to face with art that is both bare and honest can take your breath away.
That's the late holiday gift 7th House Theater delivers with Jonah and the Whale, a thoughtful and thrilling new musical version of a very old story.
Playwright Tyler Mills offers nothing fancy, since nothing fancy is needed. Jonah has been moved from a biblical setting to a small town along the Mississippi River sometime in the early 20th century. Composers David Darrow and Blake Thomas employ distinctly American sounds — from gospel and blues to bluegrass — that are perfect for illuminating a broken heart.
See also: 7th House Goes into the Belly of Jonah and the Whale
Why is it broken? Jonah starts out as a good man always willing to fix whatever needs fixing, be it a busted window or a vacuum cleaner that has latched onto the fur of a cat.
He has a young, pregnant wife, but their joy doesn't last long. Susan dies in childbirth and Jonah is left heartbroken with his son and an otherwise empty house.
Pain drives Jonah to leave and start walking... and walking. There's more than a little Job in all of this, though instead of a good man's faith being tested, Jonah is off to search for his.
No one can really help. A blues-singing faith healer only reminds him of loss and guilt. The bottom of the bottle merely intensifies his hangovers. It's going to take a date with the belly of a whale for him to find understanding.
Darrow plays a Jonah mostly pinned inside. A subtle slump of the shoulders suffices for 10 minutes of histrionics when Jonah learns of Susan's death. Dull eyes tell us instantly that a faith healer holds no magic.
He's paired with Kendall Anne Thompson as Susan. Though she dies early on, Thompson remains on stage as Susan's spirit to guide Jonah through his journey, patiently waiting for her husband to come to grips with his loss.
That time arrives in the belly of the whale. Jonah and Susan finally have a heart-to-heart in the barest of light. It's a moment rich with emotion as Darrow and Thompson use the quiet and the magnetism of the characters they've built, creating one of the most captivating scenes in Twin Cities theater this year.
In less than two years, 7th House Theater has proven itself a group to watch. Many young performers have the energy to put together a company, but it's rare for these ensembles to add performing chops and stage original work packed with so much confidence and such a strong, beating heart.
IF YOU GO:
Jonah and the Whale Previews Friday, opens Saturday through December 28 Guthrie Theater 818 S. Second St., Minneapolis For tickets and more information, call 612-377-2224.