Mustard Seed Theatre closes its 10th season with a triumphant production of the much-performed Dancing at Lughnasa by Brien Friel, first produced at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin in 1990, and mounted on Broadway the following year. It was honored with the Olivier and Tony Awards for Best Play, and I honestly never understood why. Not until now anyway, when I learned what a difference brilliant casting, acting, direction and production values can do to help our imaginations soar past the logical flaws in this mostly graceful memory play.
Jim Butz creates a strong emotional center for the cast as Michael, child of the youngest of the five unmarried Mundy sisters who live together in a cottage with the boy just outside the fictional town of Ballybeg in the nonfictional Donegal County in 1936. Michael is seven, and spends an idyllic childhood with his doting mother and aunts, despite the intermittent presence of his father, Gerry Evans (Richard Strelinger), a Welsh traveling salesman. Gerry drops by every year or so to woo Christina (Jennifer Theby Quinn) and flirt with her older sister Agnes (Leslie Wobbe), the quiet one, who also has a crush on him. Eldest sister Kate (Amy Loui) is the mother-figure in the household and the only one employed outside it, so she provides the income as well as the authority. Maggie (Kelley Weber) is the good-humored, fun auntie who keeps house for the family, and Rose (Michelle Hand) is second youngest and what would have been called “slow” in her day. Agnes and Rose maintain a cottage industry making gloves and contributing their bit to the household in that way.
The group has recently been joined by their much older brother, Jack (Gary Glasgow), a Catholic priest who has been a missionary in a Ugandan leper colony his entire long career in the Church. He is ill with malaria, the ostensible reason he was sent home, but the real reason possibly has more to do with the fact that he has “gone native,” and adopted pagan customs, privileging their practices above Catholic rites and rituals. We learn in Michael’s narration that Kate will also lose her job with the local parochial school because of a decline in pupils, but there has been no such decline, so she may have also been tainted by Jack’s odd beliefs. Of course, the irony here is clear: “Lughnasa” itself is an annual celebration of the harvest begun to worship the god of the crops, Lugh, and still practiced by the faithful Christians throughout the County. Is that really different from Jack’s African customs?
Christina’s sisters are remarkably tolerant of little Michael’s assumed effect on their reputations, and Jack thinks highly of him as a “love child,” an honored position in Ugandan society. Kate protests here and there about what the neighbors think when Gerry shows up or Rose goes off to meet the married Danny Bradley who may be taking advantage of her, but she also cares deeply about the child. For his part, he is a happy boy in this loving household, but of course, “what is gold cannot stay,” and some things are about to crash and burn.
I hardly know where to start with all the things I admire about this production. The show is long, so be prepared for that, but it doesn’t feel like it. The pace director Gary Barker sets makes the 80-minute first act go by like it only runs about half that time. Things do bog down a bit in the second act, but that’s not a problem that can be fixed without alteration of the script. The energy is upped by a wireless set the women named “Marconi,” since that’s what it says on the box, and it works only intermittently and unpredictably. The radio turns out Depression-era standards and traditional Irish music only when it’s in the mood, but when it does, then dancing is likely to happen. One of Gerry’s careers was as a dance instructor, and he and Chris dance a lot when he visits, and the sisters are given to breaking out in spontaneous Irish step dancing with various levels of ability but amazing energy. Helen Gannon and KT Elliot coordinated the choreography and Zoe Sullivan designed the sound. A special nod also needs to go to Nancy Bell, dialect coach, and the talent of this cast for picking up cadences authentic to the area.
Other mountings I’ve seen don’t maintain the delicate balance required between comedy and pathos, but this one does. The sisters bear five distinct personalities, so they sometimes squabble, but like a genuine family, their love for each other is abundant and clear throughout. There is not an actor on the stage who is not capable of subtlty and complex emotion with just a word or a gesture. A couple of things in Friel’s play do stretch credulity, but when the work is this good, they are easily overlooked.
Dancing at Lughnasa is also a beautiful show. The lighting and costumes (Michael Sullivan and Jane Sullivan, respectively) add much to the appeal and authenticity of the look and feel of life in the country, as does the setting created by Kyra Bishop (set design) and Laura Skroska (props under the direction of Meg Brinkley, resident prop manager). The cottage looks entirely livable except someone has removed the fourth wall to admit the audience. The space around it is utilized more than I’ve seen in other productions, as well, so that there is a sense of openness rather than the claustrophobia that can ensue when the outside is only mentioned rather than seen. Though the narration is by the adult Michael, the sisters give such a sense of his presence as a child that we feel as if we can see him too—building his kites, spying on his parents, and doing all the things kids do to amuse themselves.
But most of all, there are these amazing actors. I can’t single one out, and I don’t even want to try. They define “ensemble,” and they are all brilliant. I had a wonderful time, and I think you will too, if you decide to put Dancing at Lughnasa on your arts calendar. You will be the richer for it.
Dancing at Lughnasa runs through April 30 at Mustard Seed Theatre on the Fontbonne University campus, 6800 Wydown Blvd. For information, visit www.mustardseedtheatre.com or call 314-719-8060.