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’20 Days’ explores what it means to be alone

In the opening moments of “20 Days to Find a Wife,” lighthouse keeper David Corbin shares his daily observations with his closest friend — his mutt, Blackie. A few minutes later, we see another lonely soul — shopkeeper Kat — speak to her best friend: Lady, her beloved dog.

How their lives intersect — though not exactly in the way you expect — forms the backbone of this History Theatre world premiere. Playwright Laurie Flanigan has taken an old Wisconsin tale about a keeper ordered to find a companion and crafted an at-turns funny and moving meditation about what it means to be alone and together. Composer Marya Hart adds in a nice and subtle score that reflects the era (1840s) and time (winter on the Great Lakes). A fine cast of four brings all of these elements to life.

The year is 1845, and Corbin hasn’t left Pottawatomie Island (now called Rock Island, a state park) in the waters between Lake Michigan and Green Bay for nine years. While Corbin is obsessed with the condition of the lighthouse, his superiors are more concerned about his mind. So, he is given a government order to head off the island and find a wife — in the 20 days of leave he’s given.

Corbin takes the order, though, mainly as a way to get some supplies. He travels across the ice to nearby Escanaba, Mich. He immediately finds two potential women — young Violet, who has been groomed by her overbearing papa, Sigvald; and older Hyacinth, who spent much of her life taking care of her own papa, and is now desperate for companionship.

Corbin courts them both, but finds his match in Kat, the fiery shopkeeper who is hiding pain much like his own. The show proceeds in a light manner through the first act and start of the second, until one night. Then, the two share their demons and discover that they have much in common — enough to make a relationship.

How the play goes from here is unexpected. In fact, it’s too unexpected for my mind. Another scene exploring their growing relationship would have helped to ease this, as would some indication of what drives Corbin’s loneliness (I had an inkling, but only because I had read the program notes before the show).

Those issues aside, the play sells its unlikely story quite well. Much of the credit for that goes to the quartet of actors who bring these people to life. Alan Sorenson has the right mixture of stiff formality (especially in the presence of the women characters) and warmth to really make you like sad sack Corbin. Molly Sue McDonald brings not just fire to Kat, but also brings us inside to see the pain she hides behind all of the sass.

Martin Ruben takes two quite different men — crusty fisherman/Corbin’s friend Mike and Sigvald — and infuses them with plenty of life. And, in the most dynamic turn of the night, Janet Hanson plays both of Corbin’s potential brides, including the Act 2 opener, where she essentially plays them both at once.

The entire production — from Erica Zaffarano’s set to Ron Peluso’s direction to the simple (piano and occasional violin) accompaniment — brings the characters and their stories to life. Even the invisible dogs deserve a curtain call.

“20 Days to Find a Wife” runs through May 31 at the History Theatre, 30 East Tenth St., St. Paul. Tickets are $20 to $32. For information, call 651-292-4323 or visit online.

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