Note: The Gladstone Theatre has issued a statement to say Dancing at Lughnasa will close early, after the matinee performance on Sunday, March 15th.
Narrator Michael (J.T. Morris) looks back in memory to the summer of 1936 in Donegal, Ireland, through the eyes of his seven-year-old self. There he lives with his unwed mother, Chris (Vivian Burns), and his four aunts. They’re the Mundy sisters. Michael’s golden memories contrast with the harsh reality of the Mundy home, where this family of six lives in Great Depression poverty. David Magladry’s set captures the grinding poverty of the Mundy home where four old chairs fail to accommodate five adults.
The Mundys survive on only two meagre incomes. Kate (Linda Webster) brings in most of the money with her small salary as a schoolteacher. Knitters Rose (Robin Guy) and Agnes (Shawna Pasini) make even less through an agreement to supply hand-knitted gloves to a dealer in the fictional village of Ballybeg. Maggie (Cindy Beaton) and Chris contribute their manual labour to keep the home habitable.
But reality impinges on Michael’s memories in three forms.
Missionary glamour arrives in the form of their long absent brother, Father Jack (Tom Charlebois). For 25 years, Father Jack has been a local hero, ministering to a leper colony in Uganda. But he arrives a shattered man, struggling with his little-used English and disoriented in his family home. The shocking reason he was sent back to Ireland is eventually revealed.
Modernity arrives as “Marconi,” a recently acquired radio that works intermittently, depending on the whims of its temperature and temperament. “Marconi” may play Irish fiddle music, reminding the sisters of the joys of their youth at the annual Harvest Dance. Or it may titillate with the contemporary musical culture of distant cities (e.g. Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes”) that provides escape from their drab lives.
Impending war arrives as Gerry Evans (Phillip Merriman), Michael’s feckless father. Gerry drifts in, unannounced after over a year’s absence, speaking of illusory opportunities, and of a real plan to join the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.
Michael remembers a family that dotes on him, a tightly knit group of sisters who struggle for their common good. The women long for the abandoned joys of their youth, especially dancing. When “Marconi” entices them to dance, dance they do, with almost pagan ecstasy. The choreography by Laurenne Tynski, Vivian Burns and Robin Guy is brilliant, particularly within the confines of The Gladstone’s rather small stage.
But just as forces of poverty, colonialism, industrial revolution, and war are on the brink of tearing the Depression world apart, these same forces tear at the fabric of the Mundy family.
Kelly orchestrates the interactions between the characters so there is a balance and fluidity that makes the family dynamics appear both familiar and fascinating.
It would be easy to characterize the five sisters uni-dimensionally: prissy Kate, earthy Maggie, simple Rose, self-effacing Agnes, and romantic Chris. But director John P. Kelly and these five actors know better, providing breadth and depth to each character, holding the audience’s attention throughout the performance. Furthermore, Kelly orchestrates the interactions between the characters so there is a balance and fluidity that makes the family dynamics appear both familiar and fascinating.
Other than some joyous dancing, there is little action in this script, sometimes described as a play where “nothing happens but everything changes.” But still waters run deep. The seemingly calm determination to survive and hold the family together hides passions and jealousies that eventually break through Michael’s rose-coloured memories.
Events take their toll on this family. Adult Michael knows and eventually reveals what child Michael doesn’t. The mills of the gods grind very slowly on the Mundy family, but they grind exceedingly fine.
This is a finely balanced and executed ensemble performance of a 1990s classic. Robin Guy played Chris 16 years ago. It may be another 16 years before you see Dancing at Lughnasa so well performed again.
Dancing at Lughnasa by Three Sisters Theatre Company and SevenThirty Productions is playing at the Gladstone Theatre until March 15th at 7:30PM, Friday, Saturday, at 2:30PM, Saturday, Sunday. Single tickets are Adult $40, Senior $36, Student, Artist, Unwaged, Matinee $24. All prices include taxes and fees. The show runs for two and a half hours, including a 20-minute intermission