Dancing at Lughnasa is a memory play, much like St. Louis’ own The Glass Menagerie. Mustard Seed Theatre has put together an ensemble for Brian Friel’s 1990 play that enlivens an already sparkling script.
It’s a family drama, seen in the rear view mirror of Michael Evans (Jim Butz), relating the story of his mother and her five siblings. Set in their home in rural Ireland in August of 1936, they struggle to get along, although the poverty is just a way of life. Two of the siblings managed to get out, at least for a while. Jack (Gary Glasgow) became a priest and went to Uganda to work with lepers many years ago, and Kate (Amy Loui), the eldest and primary breadwinner, went to college and returned to teach in the nearby village. Jack, in failing health, has been sent home from Africa.
The others are Maggie (Kelly Weber), who runs the house and the small farmstead, Agnes (Leslie Wobbe), the quietest one who knits gloves to sell in the village shops, Rose (Michelle Hand), who we gradually realize is what we’d now call developmentally delayed, and Chris (Jennifer Theby Quinn), the youngest and Michael’s mother.
Michael’s father (Richard Strelinger) was the classic traveling man, and while the women delight in the child, the family’s fall from grace is never gone from the mind of the upright probity of Kate. The household’s near-extravagant purchase of a radio – one suspects it was less expensive because it works so sporadically – gives them music and causes spontaneous outbreaks of dancing, some so wild that they seem primal.
The back-and-forth balance between the primal and society’s strict mores is the pivot of the story. The little boy they love was born out of wedlock, a “love child” in Father Jack’s phrase when he discovers the fact. And Jack doesn’t seem too upset about that, explaining that phrase is what they’re called in Uganda and they’re considered a good thing for a household. It may be their first clue that Jack’s gone native. His memory is a tad spotty, he’s spoken Swahili almost exclusively while he’s been gone, and he revels in tales of native ceremonies. Most significantly, those stories are in the first person plural. “We” did this, “we” always do that. Pagan, we can see Kate thinking.
Amy Loui’s grim jaw is Katharine Hepburn-like, with her posture and her tightly wrapped hair. Her occasional raptures of delight often scud to an abrupt end as her conscience reawakens. Weber’s Maggie is rowdy and rapturous, a real earth mother, and a contrast to the tightly controlled Agnes, whom Wobbe gives mystery to. Does she have a secret longing for Chris’ boyfriend, the ebullient Welshman Gerry? Are there more secrets from Hand’s Rose? Ebullient and easily distracted early on, she suddenly falls quiet, almost stunned, Hand doing a subtle job with a complicated character.
Having had the child, Quinn’s Chris has trudged on with her life, but there’s no sunshine ahead. Gerry reappears, one of his extremely occasional visits and she suddenly becomes an adolescent again, hesitant and fearful and excited and blooming. Strelinger plays Gerry over the top, which is about right, rather reminiscent of Professor Harold Hill. The two of them warm the stage when they dance. Butz’ Michael pays full respect to the rich Friel dialogue. Even when he’s not speaking, he’s a ghost watching his past.
This is fine ensemble work – one’s eyes fly, watching their faces, their body language, no matter who’s speaking. Gary Barker’s direction verges on choreography. The set, fairly elaborate for Mustard Seed, is from Kyra Bishop, the backdrop of Irish fields from Cameron Tesson. Michael Sullivan’s lighting slides smoothly and carefully through lots of changes. Zoe Sullivan’s sound, including what comes out of the cranky radio, adds a great deal. I particularly enjoyed the costumes, not handsome but multi-layered assemblages including sweater-upon-sweater, none of which look like Aran fishermen’s knits.
The only thing lacking was some difficulty understanding occasional lines – whether it was because they were aimed upstage or the dialect was too thick, I’m not sure. That’s easily remedied, and distracts pretty minimally from a satisfying show.
Dancing at Lughnasa
through April 30
Mustard Seed Theatre
6800 Wydown Blvd (enter off Big Bend)