By CJ Williams
Jonah and the Whale – Book written by Tyler Mills; Music and Lyrics by David Barrow and Blake Thomas; Directed by Weylin Symes; Scenic Design by Katheryn Monthei; Costume Design by Deirdre Gerrard: Lighting Design by Christopher Fournier; Sound Design by John Stone. Presented by The Stoneham Theatre 395 Main Street, Stoneham, MA 02180 through March 12.
“It wasn’t real,” says a character at one point in ‘Jonah’, the newish musical now making its New England premiere at the Stoneham Theatre. But in this rousing new folk-rock musical, that’s not the answer, rather, it’s a question, and one that runs through the length of the show. As we get our sea legs, so to speak, on the theatrical ship, we’re pressed more and more to ask about reality, both what and why – What makes life worth living? What makes us human? But like that first statement, the answers the play gives are often more questions in disguise.
‘Jonah and the Whale’ takes the classic Bible tale loosely – and figuratively – placing a modern day man in a modern day town, that could be anywhere, and maybe closer than we think. Jonah is a handyman, and he can fix anything. He’s a young husband, and he and his wife are the picture of happily-ever-after. He’s rooted in his community, and he fixes the broken things in everyone’s life – from clogged drains, to stuck windows, to vacuums – even the enormous town clock.
The kicker comes when his young wife, Susan, announces she’s pregnant – and it turns out there’s one thing Jonah can’t fix.
Susan dies in childbirth; and the clock in the town square stops. Or at least, it does for Jonah.
In short-shrift, Jonah ditches his dreams, his life, and his newborn son – and runs. From what? Perhaps the obvious answer is reality: the reality that his wife his dead; the reality that he is in pain; the reality of being human; the reality of knowing what has happened, but not knowing why.
In a drunken dream before he dashes, he meets Susan again, while the baby wails, unheard. When he wakes, still sloshed, his friend is there. “She was here!” he shouts. “Who?” “Susan!”
That’s when we hear, “It wasn’t real.”
And Jonah replies, “How can you say that?”
“Because she’s dead.”
Staged in the intimate Stoneham theatre, with the image of the whale an allusion always on the mind, and the music like the quick, ceaseless (if a lot more rousing) symphony of the sea, it’s easy to feel like you’ve dropped both literally and figuratively into the belly of the beast – with Jonah. The direction and lighting, as well as the whimsical set design, pull you in – and down. But they certainly don’t keep you down. The belly of a whale – and the tragedy of a loved one’s death – might be dark enough. The score, however, is not. David Barrow keeps your heart racing well in time; both his lyrics and score drive the production like a good trade wind, punctuating emotional high points, and retrieving us from the lows. The cast, from Jonah (Taavon Gamble) to the Sea Captain (Kathy St. George) especially when she’s rocking the river boat chanty and storm number (“Bully Boys” and “Comes the Storm”), and everyone in between, sing like anything. And though she may be dead, Susan (Sarah Elizabeth Pothier), make her “Lullaby” as real and living as the sea.
Susan may be dead. But Jonah isn’t. As the play progresses, and he takes the voyage that echoes the ‘Jonah’ tale the musical is inspired by, will he realize before he sinks? Or – perhaps the story asks – do we sometimes need to sink to realize – that we are alive, and what is real.
I won’t spoil the ending. You’ll have to pull on your boots and get out to see the production yourself. But know that this debut musical is perhaps real as they come: posing both timeless, thorny questions that it won’t give pat answers to, and doing it with the verve, and entertainment value that is foundational to any full-lived life. Jonah can’t fix life. But maybe he can live it. For more info, go to: https://www.stonehamtheatre.org/