The seemingly dormant Chapel Hill-based Archipelago Theatre has stirred to life again with a new cabaret starring artistic director Ellen Hemphill. The one-woman show, Stealing Home: The Architecture of Intimacy is a one-hour musical that tells of the highs and lows of allowing oneself to love and be loved. Hemphill takes a baker’s dozen songs and gives them an Archipelago twist, bestowing on these tunes an edge and a reality not seen before. It is stunning, an adjective oft-used to describe Archipelago’s edgy, real style of performance. This new original show is running at Manbites Dog thru April 23.

The thirteen songs Hemphill has chosen for the work are songs you have heard before, but I guarantee you that you haven’t heard them in quite this way. The term “Stealing Home” has a number of meanings, and they all have a facet shown in this work. We all attempt, throughout our lives, to return to the home we feel safe in; but to do that, we must allow ourselves to be open to love and pain, because if we do not then the home we seek may very well elude us.

We as human beings seek home and shelter with other human beings; but in order to obtain the sanctity of “home” we must open our hearts and allow another person in. When we do that, we open ourselves to the possibility – and perhaps the inevitability – of pain. Hemphill comes full-circle in her performance, from opening the gate wide in invitation (“Come On-A My House, I’m gonna give you everything”) to the loving intimacy of sexual love (“Naughty Girl”) to the pain of the loss of a relationship (the Beatles’ “For No One”). She continues through the loneliness of longing (Joni Mitchell’s “Down to You” in a medley with Buddy Johnson’s “Since I Fell For You”) and the despairing depths of singleness, being alone (“I Went to a Marvelous Party,” “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”), to the final decision to again reach out in vulnerability to share (“Come on Up to the House” by Tom Waits).

Hemphill is in fine vocal form, carrying a range that runs from a low contralto to a second soprano. She has selected these songs for the purpose of representing each of the stages of this circle of intimacy she has created. Hemphill is joined onstage by a five-member band that “hides” behind a bank of iron-and-glass windows, stage left, that doubles as a video screen. The Stealing Home band is made up of Danny Gotham on guitar, Doug Largent on stand-up bass, Jay Cartwright on accordion, Alison Weiner on piano and Ken Ray Wilemon on drums. Further screens exist upstage center and stage right. The original videography and design is by Jim Haverkamp, on a set designed by Tori Ralston.

Some eye-poppers onstage are a gigantic larger-than-life dress that Hemphill “wears” to attend that Marvelous Party; and a life-size representation of an hourglass, which pours sand down onstage as if we were all ensconced in the bowl of the glass. There are, in fact, three different falls of sand that pour onto the stage as Hemphill performs the penultimate song of the show, Neil Young’s “Cowgirl in the Sand” (“It’s the woman in you that makes you want to play this game”).

As Hemphill travels around this circle of intimacy that she presents to us, we begin to realize that the intimacy depicted has a longer lifespan than just the relationship to which it is attached. When we open ourselves to another person, the intimacy involved may or may not be a comfortable one. But whether it is or not, it survives the dissolution of the relationship. The intimacy lives on in the memories of the two involved. This intimacy colors the lives led by the two after the separation, and influences how quickly, or how slowly, we travel the circle so that we are able to love again. Some people never manage to travel the circle even one time. An example of this is the song “Martha,” written by Tom Waits. Martha has been in love with the same man for over forty years. Unfortunately, he has moved on, married, and had children. But she still calls him occasionally to reminisce. She cannot move beyond that one love.

This is a superior cabaret that has layer upon layer of meaning wrapped up in it. It is warm, but it is also sharp, poignant, sad, dreary, hopeful, and joyous. There is not a word of dialogue in it; all lines come from the songs as Hemphill sings them to us. It is all the dialogue we need. The songs that have been chosen for this show are songs we have heard before. But Hemphill sings these songs in a way that lends new meaning to them. You will not hear these songs sung in just this way again – but you will wish you could.

Stealing Home: The Architecture of Intimacy runs through April 23. For details, see the sidebar.