'Dancing at Lughnasa' fills a young boy's memory with laughter and love, easing the truths that follow
Memory is a tricky thing. Life altering events take on exaggerated significance over the years, while the important, everyday pleasures and small moments fade from view. Mustard Seed Theatre's warm and comforting interpretation of Dancing at Lughnasa embraces those little moments and memories. Using the everyday as a setting, the show creates a warm tapestry of love and life in a rapidly changing world.
Set in Donegal County, Ireland in 1936, when global tensions were mounting but local concerns kept the looming war far away, Brian Friel's tender memory play revisits an important summer in young Michael, our narrator's, life. A significant turning point for his family, Michael's unmarried mother, Christina, and her four sisters, Kate, Maggie, Agnes, and Rose are eagerly anticipating their missionary brother Jack's return from Africa.
The economy is tough, so they all live together in a small country cottage, scraping to get by as best they can. Jack has embraced the local beliefs of the leper community he served and, fittingly, returns shortly before the feast of Lughnasa, a pre-Christian harvest celebration still locally celebrated. Devoutly religious sister Kate has concerns about him, as well as her family's survival. Michael's father, Gerry, a wayward traveling salesman, unexpectedly pops in throughout the summer, adding stress to an already full house.
As young Michael and narrator, Jim Butz exudes the reverence and innocence Friel has so expertly captured in his script. There's an unaffected lilt to Michael's voice that's present throughout the story, and Butz complements it with a wistful dreaminess in posture and expression as he voices his younger self. Butz and director Gary Barker ensure Michael never enters the scene with his family, but the actor is physically, emotionally, and mentally present in each moment.
Butz gets splendid and affectionate support from a fabulous cast, helping the show traverse its ups and downs with a gentle but realistic tone. Jennifer Theby Quinn brings radiance to Christina's every breath, in moments of joy and sorrow. Her scenes with Richard Strelinger, Michael's father, sparkle with affection and emotion, a striking contrast to the hard working, matter-of-fact demeanor that takes over when he's away. Amy Loui gives Kate a sharp but not unkind edge. She's clearly upset by her brother's changes, and constantly worrying about how the family will get by. Kelly Weber shares her burden, but remains exuberant and playful as Maggie, working to stretch the food and keep spirits high. She's clearly the "man" of the house, and constantly reminds everyone how much she'd like a real man around to help her out.
Leslie Wobbe is kind, patient, and sensibly nurturing to all as Agnes. Her voice gentle and soothing and her hands constantly working, trying to contribute and keep the peace. Michelle Hand brings a deft but perfectly accentuated touch to simple Rose, underplaying the girl's troubles then bursting into joyful activity for a song on the radio or funny story that reveals all. Finally, Gary Glasgow is lit with fire and longing as Father Jack, while Strelinger brings rakish charm and a more base fire to his likeable turn as Michael's unreliable father.
The tone of the story is bittersweet -- both the home situation and the world will change radically over the coming decade. But Friel's rhapsodic dialogue and pristine clarity in the moment helps us to ignore, if not entirely forget, the inevitable. Butz skillfully guides us through these transitions as Michael and the result is a gentle lullaby of a show, dreamy and dotted with small, personal details that sparkle like distant stars.
The fabulously detailed set, by Kyra Bishop, feels welcoming if sparse, expertly capturing the look of both the time and the family's struggles to survive. Jane Sullivan's cleverly appropriate costumes, Michael Sullivan's sunny lighting, and Zoe Sullivan's sound, including the wonderful "wireless" radio, add icing on this multi-tiered confection.
Though tested by troubled times, Dancing at Lughnasa offers a tirelessly hopeful light, which, while dulled through years of harsh circumstances and sacrifice, shines bright. The show, running through April 30, 2017 at Mustard Seed Theatre on the Fontbonne University campus, is a poignant tale that dances and skips through serious subject matter, leaving the audience with a wistful, nostalgic warmth.