(photo credit: Stephanie Noel Garrison)
Written by Daniella Litvak
You know how Game of Thrones has been described as The Sopranos meets Middle Earth and Breaking Bad as Goodbye, Mr. Chips meets Scarface? If I had to play that game with Dancing at Lughnasa, I would say it is Pride and Prejudice meets Angela’s Ashes.
Dancing at Lughnasa is a memory play. As an adult, Michael Evans (Jason Cook) recalls what it was like growing up with his mom Chris (Mabel Schreffler) and his aunts Kate (Kendall Sinclair), Maggie (Jennifer Walquist), Agnes (Ashley Montgomery), and Rose (Brooke Lewis) in Ballybeg, Ireland during the 1930s. The summer Michael turned seven was a momentous one. Uncle Jack (Michael Dale Brown) returns to Ballybeg after decades of missionary work in Uganda. The household acquires a wireless, and Michael’s father Gerry (Taylor Goss) pops in and out of their lives. The wireless allows for the sisters to dance and blow off steam, but forces — ranging from local to global issues — are threatening to the tear the family apart.
In his review for the 1998 film adaptation, Roger Ebert wrote, “…[I]t is all memory and no drama.” The same can be said for the stage version. Framing the play as childhood memories makes the slice of life presentation understandable, but tighter plotting and perhaps fewer characters would have created a more dramatically satisfying story. There’s a lot happening in these characters lives — especially in relation to the sisters’ failed romantic lives. Mostly it’s there for the sake of exposition, but I wished things like the love triangle among Chris, Gerry, and Agnes were fully realized subplots as opposed to being brought up but ultimately not amounting to much.
The characters are interesting but some are more developed than others. Kate is the best written character. She’s the stern, head of household figure. She is charged with being a “self-righteous bitch,” but because we see her softer side in interactions with Michael and Maggie, she comes across as a sympathetic, complicated woman. She’s strict, but we understand she doesn’t like being the “stop having fun” person, and her love and fears for her family are genuine. Chris, on the other hand, gets the shortest shrift. The story treats her more like a McGuffin rather than as a character. There are also nuances to the characters I didn’t realize until after seeing the play, and I wonder if the downplaying of some elements were conscious decisions or were straight from the text.
The “Directors Note” describes Dancing at Lughnasa, as a “…play filled with poetic realism.” I wish more a poetic aesthetic had been incorporated into the set design and costuming. The stage is divided into countryside and the kitchen of the family’s cottage. Everything looks suitably authentic to the time period, and you get a sense of who would inhabit this world before any character makes an appearance. However, a less realistic design would have tied in to the theme of memory better and added more excitement to the show.
Still Dancing at Lughnasa can tug at the heartstrings. When Michael delivers his final monologue, everything comes to together to create an incredibly stirring theater moment.