A man in explorer gear stands left, holding banjo. On the right is a woman in winter clothes holding an electronic violin. There are projections behind them of an icy landscape.
Andrew Mueller (left) and Elisa Carlson in Ernest Shackleton Loves Me at Porchlight Music Theatre Credit: Liz Lauren

Imagine if Harper, the Valium-addicted Mormon wife in Angels in America who imagines herself in Antarctica, actually met famous explorer Ernest Shackleton through some rift in the time-space continuum. Only instead of being a neglected housewife, she’s an aspiring avant-garde composer looking for a big break.

Shackleton Loves Me
Through 6/1: Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 3:30 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM; also Tue 5/30 7:30 PM and Wed-Thu 5/31 and 6/1 1:30 PM; open captions Sat 5/27 2:30 PM; Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn, 773-777-9884, porchlightmusictheatre.org, $48-$77

As far as wild premises go, Joe DiPietro’s Ernest Shackleton Loves Me (music by Brendan Milburn, lyrics by Val Vigoda, with additional music by Ryan O’Connell), which is now in its Chicago premiere at Porchlight Music Theatre under Michael Unger’s direction, checks all the boxes. But though the internal logic breaks down from time to time in this 90-minute show, as a paean to “foolish optimists,” it mostly rings true.

Kat (Elisa Carlson) struggles to create new experimental music loops while her infant son sleeps next door. Her slacker boyfriend is on the road with a Journey cover band and hasn’t paid a dime toward the heating bill. Cold and unable to sleep for 36 hours? Who could relate to that? Enter Shackleton (Andrew Mueller) from the back of her refrigerator, bearing a banjo and a message of never giving up.

So OK, it’s kind of hokey, but damned if Carlson and Mueller don’t make it all work. The former in particular has a stupendous set of pipes. Add in Smooch Medina’s terrific projection designs (incorporating Frank Hurley’s real photos and films from the Shackleton archives), and you’ve got an offbeat but oddly moving blend of history and hope. If Shackleton and his men could survive hell on earth, maybe an exhausted artist and mom can hold on another day.