Dancing at Lughnasa

Written by Brian Friel, this play has quite the following and frankly large shoes for a community theatre production to fill. The Olivier Award for best play in 1991 and a Tony Award for best play in 1992. An intimate and poignant movie starring Meryl Streep…

The story takes place in 1936 at the home of the Mundy sisters just outside the village of Ballybeg, County Donegal, Ireland and is shared as the memory of a 7 year old boy, son to one of the Mundy sisters. The play has three components to the story to take into consideration: the narration done by the adult version of Michael– the 7 year old; the beginning of the story which takes place over a matter of a few days; and the end of the story which happens three weeks later. I have not read the play nor have I seen any other productions of the show so I’m not sure how other productions wove these three components together; however, this production fell short of its potential.

Dancing at Lughnasa set

Not the greatest picture I’ve taken of a set but it demonstrates how big the space is and how little space the set occupies. Much is left to the imagination of the audience, including emotional connection to the players. I think (I hope) I understand what Director Robert Leff was trying to achieve here. A small, lower class, intimate home close to what a family may have shared at the time. The problem with it is the Majestic stage swallows this small set and diminishes the emotional connection required to achieve the intimacy the writer wanted us to feel. We, the audience, aren’t peering through the window or sitting at the table with these characters sharing their story, we’re watching it from a distance with binoculars. The set itself, is beautifully done. Built by Sarah Sullivan and Ron Seymour, the set is reminiscent of the time with props, done by Emily Haro and Tim Harris, and set pieces bringing the time period alive. Combined with costumes designed by Ruth Drake and Sandee Furguson, the sisters truly look lifted straight out of Ireland in 1936. What we need for this play to work is a set which uses the full capacity of the stage, inviting us to the table to drink tea, experience the women interact, and watch the women navigate their relationships. The light design by Lilian Wakefield is superb! Rich, vibrant colors supporting the tone of each scene. And during the spontaneous dancing with the sisters, the light show brings the energy to another level.

Kyle Norton does his best to narrate the story from a stool placed on the left side of the proscenium. He also speaks his dialogue from this location as well. I say, “speak” because in the scenes as a 7 year old boy, he says his lines as if he’s narrating his memory instead of recreating the memory while the rest of the cast interact with an imaginary boy. It’s a shame. Here was a chance for him to play a range of emotion and age and it didn’t happen.

Kyle Norton as Michael (courtesy of Majestic Theatre photos)

As for the sisters, well, there are some truly great moments here. As well as some which land under their potential. Accacia Nepote plays Chris, Michael’s mother and middle sister, who has had him out of wedlock. Nepote has the accent down, as far as I can tell–it sounded believable to me, and shows great range in all of her scenes. I’ve never met her but felt like this personality could be hers in real life. *There is an underlying question which wasn’t explained in the second act between her, her sister Agnes, and the father of her child- but I’ll get to that later. Chris Kastet plays Kate, the head of the household, the oldest sister, and the moral compass of the group. While Kastet tries her best with this part, she doesn’t quite seem to reach or connect to the character’s inner struggle which is obvious in her emotional and physical choices. Which brings me to Agnes played by Tresa Bowlin. I kept wanting Kastet and Bowlin to switch roles the moment Kastet made her first entrance. Tresa plays her role as Agnes with great reservation and is under-utilized as Agnes. She did very well with her accent, her emotional connection, and her interaction with the other women. Wendy McLaren plays Maggie, a bit of a cut-up, she brings much of the comedy relief to the sisters. She craftily makes fun of her sisters while at the same time offers a supportive or reassuring center when needed. She isn’t afraid of getting her hands, or face, dirty for the role and her accent felt natural. Gaylen Sinclair rounds out the sisters with Rose. The younger one of the bunch who helps Agnes with the knitting as well as remind her older sisters what it means to be young, full of life, and the desire to be free and loved. Sinclair looks like she’s having fun being Rose and like Nepote, McLaren, and Bowlin- it’s a glimpse of the real Rose and not someone playing her onstage.

Maggie and Rose (Courtesy of Majestic Theatre photos)
Kate, Chris, Agnes, and Rose (Courtesy of Majestic Theatre photos)

As for the men, well….I love Robert Best. I’ve seen him many times in amazing roles with a tremendous amount of depth and range. Heck, he played the boots off a character in the show, Think Twice, I directed two years ago. (Everyone thought he was the killer.) But here, he is miscast as Gerry, the father of 7 year old Michael and on again- off again love interest of Chris. The dialogue for Gerry comes off as not the smartest guy but definitely the buffest or handsome-ist and most charming guy in the village with probably a girl in every port. Not to say Best isn’t handsome or charming, he’s just not the beefcake losery lothario the character seems to call for. He’s too smart. Too sincere. I could see where he was trying to sweep Chris off her feet after being away for more than a year to distract her from the very fact of being absent. But it wasn’t believable. His accent was, or lack thereof, was distracting and while the dancing scenes among the women were natural and fluid, thanks to choreographer Mishele Mennett, the scenes with Best dancing with Chris or Agnes felt a bit clunky as if there was no history there. Sad. I really love him as an actor but felt he was a bit out of place. Robert McLaren plays Jack, the priest brother who has been away for decades taking care of people in Africa. He’s come home to live the rest of his days and is like a fish out of water in his sister’s home having difficulty remembering the English word for this or that. He tells stories about ceremony and tradition in Africa fondly but feels no connection to his Irish Catholic heritage much to his sister’s dismay. McLaren, in his first role, is pretty good as a beginner but could have used more coaching in pacing, range in tone, and overall absentmindedness.

Father Jack (Courtesy of Majestic Theatre photos)
Robert Best (yes, I know, it’s from Boy but I couldn’t find a pic from Dancing at Lughnasa with him it. Courtesy of Majestic Theatre photos)

Overall, this play has great potential to be worthy of an award, it’s just not achieved with this version. It felt like it should’ve been a Reader’s Theatre production. With some minor changes, it would’ve been more intimate, the audience would’ve forgiven minor cast details, and the audience would’ve walked away feeling like calling their sisters to see how they’re doing. There are things I would have done differently as a director, the ending to be sure. It just wasn’t the punch the play was asking for. I wanted to feel something for the sisters, Michael, Jack, and even Gerry but as the end was happening, I didn’t really care. I realized I wasn’t emotionally invested in the story. Too bad. I did love the story; however, so I plan on watching the movie version and maybe some YouTube to satisfy the emotional connection I was hoping for.

Dancing at Lughnasa continues tonight @ 7:30, tomorrow @ 2:30, and next weekend. Click here to purchase tickets online or to see more dates and showtimes. Support your community theatre! Support the Arts!

2 thoughts on “Dancing at Lughnasa”

  1. Jeannette — Thanks for a real review. All we ever get from the local paper is a report of the theatrical event, who’s in the cast, who the director is, and what he/she is trying to achieve with this play, this production. I read the play and told Robert Leff it wasn’t “my cup of tea” so had no interest in seeing it. But it was a real pleasure to have the production reviewed by someone with real theatrical chops willing to offer up critical remarks of who and what you liked and didn’t like, and why. Thanks!

    1. Thanks for the compliment! I try to be objective as much as possible, especially since I know some of the people involved in the show and I know how hard they worked on it. Thanks for the comment 🙂

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