While "Jamaica, Farewell" begins with the intoned words of an airline captain announcing an arrival, this powerhouse of a one-woman show, which opened Thursday at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, is really about a departure.

In 90 minutes of exuberant storytelling, playwright and actor Debra Ehrhardt details an odyssey that begins in Jamaica when she's 7 and ends just as she arrives at what she considers the Promised Land.

The second offering in Penumbra's Claude Edison Purdy Individual Artist Festival, "Jamaica Farewell" details Ehrhardt's long-standing fascination with the idea of living in the United States.

In the first half of the play she takes on a variety of roles to describe a childhood growing up in a mostly middle-class Jamaican household. Her highly religious mother does her best to provide a stable environment for her and ensures that she attends church every Sunday, while her father drinks and gambles to excess, occasionally risking even their furniture at the betting table. America, from her little girl perspective, is the land of plenty, complete with Ward Cleaver families and every variety of candy.

While this is entertaining material and Ehrhardt does a fine job of bringing these characters, including a fire-and-brimstone preacher, to life, "Jamaica, Farewell" really hits its stride in the second half. Here she is a young woman with her first job, and Jamaica, during a period of political upheaval in the 1970s, has become a dangerous and violent place to live. When she begins dating a handsome CIA agent who regularly travels between the island and Miami, she launches a dangerous scheme to escape the country.

Ehrhardt ratchets up the tension as she plots with her boss to evade Jamaica's currency laws and moves from a poignant farewell with her parents to a harrowing journey to the airport. Every imaginable situation arises, from a car accident to a near rape to a night in a noisy brothel, as she hauls a suitcase full of illicit funds to her destination.

She and director Joel Zwick (who also directed "My Big Fat Greek Wedding") create a carefully paced mélange of fear and anticipation, spiced with comic relief, that doesn't let up until Ehrhardt successfully negotiates customs in Miami. It's a tour-de-force of storytelling that leaves her audience breathless.

Penumbra Theatre deserves credit for bringing this lively, charming and inventive show to the Twin Cities. Using little more than an assortment of trunks and boxes, some evocative music, and a single voice, "Jamaica, Farewell" demonstrates once more just how compelling a well-told tale can be.

Lisa Brock writes about theater.